Due to the size of our country and its varying climates, Australian foodservice venues are lucky enough to be blessed with an abundant variety of produce, all year round. From the tropical fruits of sunny far-north Queensland to the award-winning cheeses from rich green pastures in the valleys of Tasmania, Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh produce.
Over the last 18 months, however, that supply has been put to the test, particularly during the most recent COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales. Not only have foodservice businesses had to contend with lockdowns, but they also had to battle disruptions and delays to the food supply networks they rely on so regularly.
Although relatively isolated, recent outbreaks had a ripple effect, influencing food supply networks across the rest of the country. This, in turn, affects the entire Australian economy, in which the foodservice industry plays a significant role. Local produce is crucial for the Australian foodservice industry – we rely heavily on Australian produce, importing only 11% of our food produce from overseas.
So, what issues is COVID-19 causing and has caused for Australia’s food supply chains, and how can we work together to combat these issues in future? Keep reading to find out.
The supply of food itself isn’t typically an issue in Australia, except during times of drought. In fact, we produce far more food than we need – Australian growers export over 70% of agricultural production overseas.
Rather, it’s the unexpected purchasing surges as a result of announcements about new outbreaks that can take supply chains by surprise. Several COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020 and 2021 caused shortages when customers were panic-buying pantry staples like rice, bread, and pasta. While these disruptions to the food supply chain tend to be short-lived and balance out over time, they did highlight improvements that could be made with logistics.
To add to this, last year’s drought and an unpredictable 18 months have resulted in shortages of some produce, such as beef. We spoke to Melody from Mastercut Meats, who explained that a combination of events from the last few years has led to industry-wide beef storage and price increases of up to 40% for premium meat cuts.
“The drought then the floods and fires from 2018-2020 destroyed a lot of stock and farmers were previously selling off a lot of breeding stock. Fast forward to 2021 post lockdown and we are now experiencing a beef shortage. All of this in combination with COVID has created the perfect storm.” – Melody, Mastercut Meats
Many meat suppliers are approaching 2022 cautiously. While cafes and restaurants have reopened in NSW and Victoria, an oversupply or another snap lockdown in one state or another could mean that, once again, these suppliers will be out of pocket.
Traditionally, Australian farmers rely on seasonal overseas workers and backpackers, as well as locals, to help harvest their produce. Yet international border closures in Australia in the last 18 months have meant that the agricultural workforce faced worker shortages. These shortages meant that, in some areas, crops were withering and dying before they could be harvested. The resulting harvest was much smaller than it should have been.
Smaller harvests drive up the price of some products, making them unaffordable for many foodservice venues. Many Australian food producers continue to face this issue. Hopefully, the opening of international borders in some states will slowly turn things around.
It’s not only the international workforce that has been disrupted as a result of COVID-19. Local workforces have also been affected by local outbreaks. During an outbreak, all staff from frontline retail workers to distribution centres can commonly become affected.
For instance, there have been several meatworks outbreaks in Australia, both throughout 2020 and as recently as October of this year. In 2020, there were over 300 cases in Victoria alone which were linked to meat processing facilities. The nature of this work means that hundreds of workers need to arrive at the same time for shifts. At the time of shift changes, there are even more workers arriving and leaving simultaneously.
Shift work naturally involves working long hours. Workers doing shifts of 10 to 12 hours often means that the risk of exposure increases. Last year, Worksafe in Victoria offered guidance around safety, with recommendations such as shorter shifts and temperature checks, but these recommendations were never made enforceable.
So, how can the foodservice industry adapt to the unpredictable changes that COVID-19 can cause in future?
The pandemic has certainly highlighted a greater need for government legislation, such as a national food policy, to ensure food security for Australians, especially when the pandemic is still affecting us and climate change has definite potential to cause future problems. But what can foodservice venues do to adapt in the meantime?
Well, to begin with, foodservice venues, staff, and consumers can take advantage of the release of the rapid antigen testing kits that are becoming widely available, so that COVID-positive staff can be identified more quickly while unaffected staff and employees can have peace of mind.
It’s critical that foodservice venues are prepared to face logistical and staffing challenges in future. Melody from Mastercut Meats recommends foodservice venues speak to their representatives about what is available and be prepared to “be more adaptable” when it comes to their menus.
Venues should also be sure to have additional or alternative food suppliers on hand when necessary. Above all, agility will be key in a world where we are living with COVID-19.
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