The Big Picture

How is the UK’s food system being affected by global and national changes and challenges?

The wide-reaching consequences of Covid-19 led to a new and sharper focus on food supply chains and public health in 2020. With Brexit on the horizon and climate change increasingly on the political agenda, how will these challenges and opportunities shape the UK’s food system and the health of the population?

We’ll be looking at retail food prices and how the changing geopolitical landscape may affect these, charting the impact of Britain’s new trade deals on fruit and vegetables supply chains, and exploring whether the long-term effects of Covid-19 are changing our eating and buying patterns as citizens.

Finally, with Covid-19 having impacted on health care systems and highlighted pre-existing health inequalities, we’ll look at how population health continues to be impacted as a result of these converging issues.

Click here to see our UK Food Tracker in full.

European surveys suggest Covid-19 is impacting on eating habits

A survey of 23,000 people has found that 72% of European shoppers said they would make ‘greater attempts’ to eat and drink more healthily in the future as a direct result of their Covid-19 experience. However, shifts in citizen attitudes to food continue to be debated. It is not clear whether these self-reported intentions are reflected in actual behaviour. In a separate study, a survey in the Netherlands of over 1,000 Dutch adults found that most (83%) reported eating much the same as they had before Coronavirus. While 10% reported eating more healthily, 7% reported the opposite, citing boredom as their main reason for eating less healthily.

The average monthly percentage change in average retail prices (CPI) for UK fruit and vegetables

With Covid-19 continuing to impact on all parts of the food system and with the potential to impact on UK imports and exports of food, we’ll be monitoring the Consumer Price Index (CPI) average retail price data every month to track average UK food prices.

We’ll be focussing on fruit and vegetable prices, as we know that these are an important part of a healthy diet but are typically more expensive per kilocalorie than other more energy dense foods. As perishable items that are often heavily dependent on seasonal horticultural labour, they are also vulnerable to price fluctuations.

We first compared average percentage changes in price over 12 months compared to a fixed point in time (January 2019). We’ve done this for fruits, vegetables, and all foods in the CPI basket (143 items that have been consistently measured since January 2019).

We’ve also looked at month-on-month price changes for 2020 so far for fruit and vegetables. Here we’ve compared the month-on-month average percentage price change of all items in each category (fruit and veg) compared to the same month-on month average percentage price change in 2019.

To date, average retail prices of fruit and veg appear to have dropped very slightly since the start of the year. It will be interesting to see whether this trend persists as we enter the harvest season for the Northern Hemisphere.


Call for public inquiry into BAME death risk


More than 70 public figures are calling for a full independent public inquiry into deaths from Covid-19 among people from ethnic minority backgrounds, following data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showing that black men and women are twice as likely to die from the virus as white men and women. People from Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities also had a significantly higher risk of dying. It is not yet clear exactly why this is the case, with the effect persisting even after some other risk factors such as age have been taken into account, but further research may identify a role for social and economic inequalities.



Health campaign group calls for halt on ‘unhealthy’ ads until end of lockdown

Action on Salt and Sugar, a public health campaign group, have published an open letter calling for a halt in advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods (HFSS) until the end of lockdown. Pointing to the economic effects of Covid-19 and their likely effect on long-term health, the campaign group have asked food and drink companies to voluntarily halt their advertising of less healthy foods until June 5th. They argue that the lockdown period has seen certain food, drink, and delivery brands “capitalising on the government’s ‘Stay home’ message by heavily promoting unhealthy food, even to the most vulnerable members of society, who are now a captive audience with little opportunity to leave the house or to get much exercise”.

The Bank of England warns a deep recession may be on the horizon 

The Bank of England has warned that the coronavirus pandemic will push the UK economy into its deepest recession on record. Based on an assumption that lockdown will be relaxed in June, it predicted the economy was on course to shrink by 14% this year given Covid-19’s ongoing impact on jobs and incomes. Policy makers voted unanimously to keep interest rates at a record low of 0.1%, with debate ongoing in the financial sector as to whether fiscal stimulus packages such as quantitative easing (as in 2008) ought to be brought in or not. 

Waitrose report uncovers changes to shopping habits during lockdown

Waitrose and John Lewis have conducted a poll of 2,000 people and supplemented the results with data from the retail group to reveal changing shopping and eating habits during lockdown. Their customer base, largely made up of higher-income households, has returned to larger weekly shops (a trend being seen across the retail sector), and a diverse set of behaviours have been captured. 50% are saying that they are working harder to use store cupboard ingredients and not waste food, while 38% report snacking more, 26% experimenting with different ingredients and 19% sitting at the table together for more meals.  Alcohol consumption has also increased: of those that drink, 25% reported drinking more (with tequila sales soaring by 175% during lockdown), and liqueurs are up 78% as consumers try new cocktails.

Data from Kantar shows that grocery sales growth slowed in April as consumers adapt to life under lockdown

UK Grocery sales increased by 5.5% in April compared to the year before, according to the latest data from Kantar. Despite the rise, this is a noticeable drop compared to March which saw a record sales growth of 20.6%, suggesting that people are working their way through cupboard stocks bought in the run-up to lockdown and are adjusting to a new normal.

With restaurants, cafes and canteens all currently closed, the rise in sales is likely due to people eating more of their meals at home. This is supported by the fact that there was a fall in on-the-go food and drink sales; worth more than £350 million in April last year.

On average, households shopped only 14 times for groceries over the past month, a record low, and down from 17 in more normal times. However, this drop in frequency was matched by a corresponding uplift in the amount spent on each trip to £26.02 – the highest figure ever recorded by Kantar. Consumers appear to be heeding advice to shop less frequently, ditching more frequent top-up shops in favour of a larger weekly shop.

Convenience stores and online shopping are benefitting from social distancing measures. Demand for online shopping has continued to increase in line with retailers expanding their capacity, with shopper numbers up by a quarter. Online sales now account for 10.2% of overall grocery, versus 7.4% last month, with the greatest increase among older shoppers. Although not traditionally big users of e-commerce, over-65s spent 94% more on deliveries than they did a year ago. Convenience stores meanwhile, saw sales increase by 39% in April as people shop nearer to home.

Although it is too early to assess whether diets are changing as a result of lockdown, certainly baking appears to be on the up, with sales of suet up by 115% and sugar by 46%.

With thanks to Kantar.

ONS figures suggest the poorest are twice as likely to die from Coronavirus as the wealthiest


New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that people living in more deprived areas of England and Wales are more likely to die with coronavirus than those in the least deprived areas. Analysis shows there were 55 deaths for every 100,000 people in the poorest parts of England, compared with 25 in the wealthiest areas. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said he was aware of the problem; “This is something that we are worried about and looking at”. In a statement, the government said it had commissioned urgent work from Public Health England to understand the different factors that could influence the way someone was affected by the virus and would set out more details in due course. With data also suggesting that those with obesity are more likely to die of Covid-19, it may prove difficult to untangle the relationship between obesity and socio-economic deprivation and increased risk of mortality from Covid-19.

Millions of farm animals may be culled as US supply chain is disrupted, while US sales of plant-based meat alternatives increase

COVID-related slaughterhouse shutdowns in the US are leading to fears of meat shortages and price rises, with concerns that millions of farm animals may need to be culled as a result. More than 20 slaughterhouses have been forced to close to date (partly due to worker illness), although some have subsequently reopened. A combination of restaurant and slaughterhouse suspensions as a result of measures brought in to contain the spread of COVID-19 have led to ‘back-ups’ on farms and in the food chain. This chimes with recent data released by Nielsen which found that plant-based alternative meat sales in the US jumped by 200% in the week ending April 18th amid slaughterhouse closures.