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How UK food supply networks are coping with COVID-19

Although continuing pictures of empty shelves at UK supermarkets have sparked ongoing worries about food shortages, the supermarkets are confident that they can cope, not least because there is a limit to how much people can sensibly stockpile. So they believe that shopping patterns should return to normal eventually.

But the coronavirus pandemic has awakened wider fears about the security and strength of the hugely complicated supply chains, or logistics systems, that modern societies depend on.

Half of the food consumed in the UK comes from overseas, official figures show, with 30% coming from the European Union. Some basics like flour for bread, or lamb chops, may well have come from the other side of the world.

Not only that, but the introduction of “just in time” manufacturing in recent years means that many companies don’t store the components necessary to keep their factories running. They are dependent on the parts arriving “just in time” from their suppliers, often from thousands of miles away.

While that has led to the closure of nearly every car plant in the UK, that same system has also been adopted by the large supermarket chains. As Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London's City University, explains, that makes the system vulnerable.

"It is like a web of stretched rubber bands,” he says, “if one breaks then it knocks on through the system."

The whole point of just in time logistics is to get rid of the cost of warehousing, and so there are not many reserves of food in the UK.

So, keeping logistics working is essential to putting food on the table, and keeping the country’s economy working. But how robust is it, and what plans are there to keep it working when more and more people become ill, or are isolated, by the virus?

Click here to read the full article.


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