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The Big Picture

How is COVID-19 affecting how we feed ourselves?

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the UK food system. To understand what this will mean for citizens, we’ll be monitoring trajectories for these variables:

  • Infection and mortality rates – how will infection and vaccine developments unfold, and will these be mirrored in food system changes?
  • Civil cohesion and food poverty – will we see civil unrest if people struggle to afford food and prices rise?
  • Food prices – how will supply chains be affected; will export bans lead to price rises and shortages; will domestic production increase and will average prices of fruit, vegetables and other staple foods increase as a result?
  • Fruit and vegetable sales

Follow system-wide developments here as we track shifting challenges and demands, and look at how coronavirus-driven change is reflected in the food system.

Return to our homepage to view the COVID-19 Tracker in full.

New report, ‘Signalling virtue, promoting harm’ highlights how corporations globally responded to Covid-19

A new report released today by the Non-communicable disease alliance (NCD Alliance), has brought together hundreds of examples from around the world of how commodity industries, led by Big Alcohol, Big Food, and Big Soda, have leveraged the COVID-19 pandemic increase sales of their products. The report points out the inherent irony in this and details the marketing strategies and tactics used by these companies:

“Since the early days of the pandemic, we have observed two trends: the growing epidemiological evidence that people living with NCDs are suffering worse outcomes from COVID-19, and that many producers of unhealthy commodities have rapidly adapted their strategies in an attempt to capitalise on the pandemic and lockdowns,” said Lucy Westerman, Policy and Campaigns Manager with the NCD Alliance and a co-author of the report . 

Scottish data shows excess deaths increased during Covid-19

National Records of Scotland (NRS) have released data showing that the number of people who died in Scotland at the height of the coronavirus outbreak was a third higher than usual. While around 83% of excess deaths were attributed to Covid-19, there was also an increase in deaths from diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, which were about a quarter higher than the five-year average.  

While it is thought that fewer people seeking help for other conditions during the pandemic may also have contributed to the increase in excess deaths, deaths from transport accidents were down by 69.1%, illustrating the profound impact Covid-19 and associated distancing measures have had on population demographics. 

Tesco polling suggests Covid-19 continues to impact on attitudes towards food waste

New polling commissioned by Tesco has revealed that food waste is down and cooking from scratch has increased, as the pandemic continues to impact on citizen attitudes towards food and food systems. The research, which surveyed 2,002 UK adults, found that the Covid-19 lockdown has led to 67% of people reporting that they now feel differently about food. For 29% of respondents Covid-19 has made them more aware of the value of food, with 38% of those surveyed saying that lockdown and the associated challenges have represented the ‘single most important event in their lifetime when it comes to their relationship with food and food waste’.  

Although recent data from WRAP indicated that household food waste was increasing as lockdown eased (although still up on pre-covid-19 levels), Tesco’s research suggests that many are still intending to persist with behaviours adopted during Covid. More than a third (35%) of people reduced their food waste during lockdown and 75% have kept this up since restrictions have lifted. 61% are now cooking with leftovers every week, just under a third (32%) are planning their food shops more carefully to buy exactly what is needed or can be safely stored, and almost a quarter (22%) are batch cooking and freezing more. Only 3% of those who reduced food waste during lockdown say they don’t plan to continue these new habits in future. 

New report finds gap between consumer and industry expectations of food system change following Covid-19

A new report, ‘Building Back Better: Fixing the Future of Food’, undertaken by Veris Strategies in collaboration with 25 food industry and sustainability experts including the World Resources Institute, has found there is a gap between consumer expectations of the effects the pandemic will have on food and what the industry feels it is able to do to deliver change.  

80% of the 1,000 consumers polled as part of the report felt Covid-19 had affected how they think about and value the food they buy and eat, with nine out of ten saying they expected change to follow that would lead to healthier, more sustainable and ethical food consumption. Yet while the majority (78%) of the industry experts polled believe the pandemic has exposed ‘serious weaknesses’ in the food system, 96% thought the UK food system is ‘not yet equipped to deal with the long-term impacts of Covid-19’. The report suggests expanding the concept of ‘sustainability’ to focus more on consumers’ health, recommending the food industry do more around equitable access to food. 

Research from IGD shows consumers are more concerned about health in the wake of the pandemic

New research from the grocery research organisation and charity IGD has found ongoing changes in consumer attitudes towards healthy and sustainable diets in the wake of the pandemic. As part of their ongoing research project ‘Appetite for Change’, data from some 1,000 UK consumers was collected in July 2020 to explore the impact of COVID-19 on attitudes towards healthy and sustainable diets, building on data gathered in November 2019.  

The survey found that 57% are changing their diets or considering making changes to be healthier and more sustainable, down from 66% in 2019. Health is now a key motivator for consumers to change their diet, with nearly two-thirds (63%) of people citing health as their primary driver compared to 58% in 2019. Yet while 38% of the sample ranked health as one of their top two reasons for choosing and buying food, just 28% said that the environmental impact of food was their first or second reason for buying a food. Price was cited as a major barrier for following healthier diets and confusion remains as to what a healthy and sustainable diet actually entails. 

Nut prices fall as sellers fear a drop in demand

Nut prices have fallen as supply outstrips demand in the wake of Covid-19 impacting on traditional buyers. Hotels, Airplanes and pubs have all been affected by social distancing measures, with many remaining closed or seeing a drop in trade as a result of the pandemic. As a result, recent research from Mintec has found that the drop in demand is being driven by changes in the out of home sector, with US almond prices dropping by about 40 per cent this year (the lowest price for a decade) while walnuts are down 18 per cent and cashews have lost 10 per cent of value.  

Home working and lockdown are changing how we lunch according to a new survey

With up to 50% of workers still working from home rather than in offices according to ONS data, a recent survey by the online delivery company Just Eat has highlighted changes in lunchtime eating behaviours following lockdown.  The survey of 1500 workers found that many are turning to tried and tested ‘on the go’ options, with 34% reporting a decline in the quality of their lunch. Thirty-nine percent said they opted for just a packet of crisps on most days and a further six percent admitted to eating cold baked beans straight from the can. Thirty percent said they usually have a cup of coffee rather than a meal, while 36% rely on instant noodles and 19% turn to ready meals. 

Biscuits (27%), bars of chocolate (30%), potato waffles cooked in the toaster (6%) and jam on toast (17%) were reported as other  popular lunchtime options, suggesting a potential shift towards energy dense options.

The tinned food renaissance continues apace

Figures from Kantar reveal that overall sales of canned food soared by 72.6%, to £313.2m, in March 2020 compared with the same time last year. Although the initial increase in sales was likely due to citizens stocking up on long-life supplies in the immediate run-up to lockdown, a number of brands are hoping to persuade consumers to continue to buy tinned goods. The ‘Love Canned Food Festival’ is due to take place on Instagram over four days this week, and will be the UK’s first festival devoted solely to canned food. Virtual visitors will be urged to help families struggling with food insecurity by making a donation to its charity partner, FareShare.  

Concerns grow for the future of health improvement as PHE restructuring continues

The news that Public Health England is to be merged with the NHS Track and Trace Services to create a new health protection agency, the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), has been met with concern from many in the public health community.  PHE currently works on both health protection and health improvement programmes. Jeremy Ferrer, a member of SAGE and Director of the Wellcome Trust, criticised the announcement as short-sighted and premature ahead of the official enquiry into the Government’s response to Covid-19. His remarks came amid fears of widespread job losses when PHE is merged into a new body – up to 800 PHE staff who specialise in tackling obesity, smoking and alcohol misuse could be at risk, sources at the agency told the Guardian.

The British Dietetic Association has separately released a statement  expressing  serious reservations following the announcement. BDA Chair Caroline Bovey, RD said: 

“We are concerned this move could have far reaching public health implications. The suggestion seems to be that the work of PHE will be spread out at a local level with a national body looking at disease control only. PHE leads on vital work tackling health inequality in England. We believe this work requires a nationally co-ordinated approach.”

It remains to be seen what changes to PHE mean for the Government’s recent Obesity Strategy.