Staff absences lead to missing product lines © PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Staff absences lead to missing product lines © PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

'Serious concerns' over Covid impact on food supply chains

11 January 2021

Ocado has warned of product shortages as staff absences due to Covid rules force suppliers to streamline product lines.

In an email to customers, the online retailer said there would be an “increase of missing items and substitutions over the next few weeks”.

Ocado told its customers that from Friday “changes to the UK supply chain have affected some of our suppliers and may result in an increase of missing items and substitutions over the next few weeks”. 

Staff absences due to self-isolation have led some food producers to streamline and reduce the number of product lines they offer. 

An Ocado spokesperson said: “Staff absences across the supply chain may lead to an increase in product substitutions for a small number of customers as some suppliers consolidate their offering to maintain output.”

The warning comes as an industry body called for frontline workers in meat factories to be included on the list of early vaccine recipients.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said the risk of more rapid spread of the virus among key workers, alongside expected disruption of food supplies at ports due to Brexit, “pose a severe challenge to the industry and to the smooth running of the nation’s food supply chain”.

Nick Allen, CEO of BMPA, said: “As the new coronavirus variant takes hold across the whole of the UK, we are hearing widespread reports of rapidly rising absences in the food supply chain. In some cases, notably in the supermarket sector, companies are seeing a tripling of staff having to take time off work through illness or enforced self-isolation.”

David Read, chairman of Prestige Purchasing, told SM he was “seriously concerned” over the welfare of wholesalers and other suppliers to sectors that have been shut down due to Covid restrictions.

“Demand planning has been thrown into disarray, and once again suppliers are making much lower volume deliveries to the operators that have remained open, which of course is uneconomic. I remain seriously concerned about whether many suppliers to the hospitality sector have the resources to survive another extended lockdown.

“The hospitality supply chain is huge and diverse, ranging from food and beverage suppliers and kitchen equipment providers to wifi services and legal counsel. Pre-Covid, the supply chain directly employed 1.4m people and almost as many jobs indirectly. It generated £36bn per annum in GVA but the average supplier saw a 78% decrease in revenue in the first few months of the pandemic due to venue closures and has since suffered further losses.”

Meanwhile, wholesalers have warned thousands of pounds worth of food may have to be thrown away because schools have closed under new national lockdown rules. 

Philip de Ternant, managing director of Creed Foodservice, told the BBC: “I've got around £6,000 of milk going out of date. If I can't give it to anyone, it will be dumped.”

De Ternant said the milk made up part of around £50,000 of unwanted chilled stock his firm must deal with. Since April, he has been forced to write off £150,000 of food.

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