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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.

Reports suggest major shake-up at PHE

Reports over the weekend suggest that Public Health England (PHE) is to be merged with the NHS Test and Trace scheme, amidst reports that Ministers have been unhappy with the way PHE responded to the coronavirus crisis. PHE have been criticised for not scaling up community testing and tracing during the initial months of the pandemic, although many have criticised the recent announcement and suggested that the government are using PHE (an agency of DHSC) as a scapegoat for criticism of their handling of Covid-19. It remains to be seen what will happen to those departments within PHE that do not directly work on infectious disease control, such as the evidence review and nutrition teams.

NHS routine operations remain down leading to fears of a backlog in urgent cases

As the NHS works to restore normality post-Covid, the latest data from the NHS show that the number of patients admitted for routine treatment in hospitals in England was down 67% in June compared with the same time last year.  

MacMillan Cancer said the figures were ‘worryingly low’, with the number of people going to their GP with symptoms of cancer and being urgently referred to a specialist still nearly 20% lower than the same time last year. The number of people on waiting lists for operations rose again in June, continuing the trend seen since March.

FSA survey shows diverse attitudes among citizens to the food system during Covid-19

The latest in a series of rolling surveys by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows the continuing impact of Covid-19 on food behaviours. The latest survey is based on qualitative research conducted with 28 UK citizens in June and July 2020, finding a wide variety of responses to the pandemic, and diverse responses in terms of food and cooking behaviours. While some found themselves very pressured and reported only negative disruption to their household food habits, others found that lockdown provided a break from routine that allowed for more connection with and enjoyment of food. The same divergence can be seen in dietary patterns. While some said they had become much more health conscious during lockdown, others responded to increased stress and other pressures by increasing reliance on snacking, quick foods, ultra-processed foods and/or takeaways as a result. Those living in urban environments  were much more concerned about the risk of Covid-19 transmission then rural ones. 

French champagne sector suffers in spite of a good harvest due to social distancing measures globally

Despite near perfect harvest conditions the impact of social distancing on gatherings and business events have led to a sharp drop in demand for France’s fiercely protected champagne industry. Rising tensions have been reported ahead of a meeting on 18 August, when a decision must be made on how many champagne grapes each of the roughly 15,000 growers is allowed to put on the market. The situation is an interesting demonstration of the effect Covid-19 is having on supply chains, with changing demand and labour shortages affecting growers more this year than adverse weather conditions or logistic restrictions. 

UK officially in recession for the first time in 11 years

The UK officially entered an economic recession on the 12th of August following two consecutive quarters of economic decline. Between April and June the economy shrank by 20.4% compared to the first three months of the year as the impact of Covid-19 took hold. However, on a month-on-month basis, the economy grew by 8.7% in June, building on growth in May and suggesting a slow but positive recovery following lockdown.

More job losses are expected following the end of the government’s furlough scheme in October. 

New report calls on Government to build on their obesity strategy by investing in a transformative Food and Agriculture Sector Deal.

A new report by the think-tank Demos has called on the government to introduce more interventionist reforms of the food sector, finding that even before Covid-19 some 20 million in the UK were unable to afford healthier food with 19 million unable to find healthy foods available in shops close to their home. Focusing on the barriers to healthy eating, the report finds that the three main drivers that consumers say push them towards unhealthier foods are: taste (43%), cost (34%) and ease (34%). The report recommends subsidies of more healthy foods (such as veg and tinned tomatoes), more investment in meat alternatives, and a levy on processed meats. 

5 ways to reboot the food economy post Covid-19

In a recent comment piece, Professor Corinna Hawkes from the Food Policy Centre at City University has highlighted the tensions between health and the economy, apparent in both the economic fallout of global Covid-19 lockdowns and in the challenge of regulating the food sector. Professor Hawkes outlines her top five recommendations for changing the food system in the wake of Covid-19 

1) Better financing for healthy foods  

2) Making junk food less attractive  

3) Making health a core business objective  

4)  New and improved metrics for assessing business success, referencing the Food Foundation work on metrics for the food industry (see our latest dashboard here) 

5) Better use of public procurement 

The Frozen food category continues to see strong sales

Nomad Foods, the owners of frozen food brands such as Birds Eye and Iglo, reported a revenue increase of 10.5% for the first quarter of 2020 as citizen stocked up their freezers amid lockdowns and social distancing measures.  

What’s more, the company have also increased their earnings forecast for the year, predicting a long-term shift towards frozen foods among consumers in light of frozen food sales remaining strong in quarter two of this year (April to June). “The impact of COVID-19 has undeniably accelerated our top and bottom line results due in large part to an influx of new consumers discovering our brands and significant repeat behaviour since the start of the pandemic”, said Nomad Food’s CEO commenting on the financial results.  

Across the UK, Italy and Germany, strong growth has been seen among millennials in particular, with frozen food also seen as an affordable option ahead of a likely global recession.

New data from WRAP show the food waste is increasing again

A new report released by the food waste NGO WRAP, has found that self-reported food waste is rising as lockdown measures in the UK continue to ease. Previous research conducted by WRAP found that during the initial phase of lockdown, levels of food waste fell by 43% between November 2019 and April 2020, with many households engaging in more rigorous household food planning behaviours. However, research conducted between 17th and 23rd June 2020 found that this trend appears to be reversing, with the average level of waste across four key products (bread, milk, potatoes and chicken) currently at 17.9%, up from 13.7% in April (an increase of 31%). Although this is still below the levels seen pre-lockdown, 27% of those surveyed were classified as having higher levels of food waste, with this group more likely to be those returning to ‘normal’ (e.g. children returned to school, furloughed but now returned to work). Despite 70% of British citizens expressing a desire to maintain some of the more positive habits taken up during lockdown, these results indicate that for many, changed behaviours during covid-19 may be transient ones only.