Why the food and beverage industry is vital during COVID-19

The global spread of COVID-19 has been unprecedented. Its impact on economies has been more profound than any other crisis in recent history. And its ramifications on the freedoms we take for granted swift and paralysing.

But in this uncertain time one thing is assured – that Australia’s food and grocery manufacturing sector will continue to operate, keeping the nation fed.

The food and grocery manufacturing sector – including the whole food and grocery supply chain, from the inputs that go into making the products, workers on the factory floor, packaging and maintenance providers, and logistics networks – is an essential service in Australia. All components, inputs and services are vital to keep the sector functioning to provide consumers with the products they need.

In towns and cities right across the country, food and grocery manufacturing sites are literally operating 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, to make sure supply continues to flow. The logistics, cost and human capital involved are tremendous, but the sector’s reaction has been extraordinary. Businesses have faced the challenges head on and, despite the difficulties, have continued to produce the high-quality products Australians know and love.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) has welcomed assurances provided by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud that the sector is essential and must continue to operate. This should provide businesses with the confidence and reassurance to continue production in this time of uncertainty. This also means that, while some states have closed their borders for non-essential travel, this will not impact food and grocery freight services.

But, as we all know, this is not business as usual. Businesses need to ensure they have sufficient and appropriate measures in place to mitigate COVID-19 exposure and infection. Businesses must review their practices and put in place strict protocols regarding hygiene and social distancing.

As an essential service, it is important food and grocery manufacturers take necessary measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 outbreak on their workforce, to ensure the ingoing production and the supply of goods. Therefore, it is vital essential processing plants have continuity plans in place so operations can continue relatively unhindered in the event of a COVID-19 case on site. By developing and implementing an appropriate plan, and with good record keeping, companies can protect businesses by reducing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission to their workforce.

The Federal Government, as well as its state and territory counterparts, has moved swiftly and decisively to help cushion the economic blow of COVID-19 to Australian businesses and the community more broadly. This has come in the form of extensive – and unprecedented – economic stimulus packages to help keep people in jobs and businesses in operation.The establishment of the Federal Government’s Coronavirus Business Liaison Unit in Treasury builds on existing efforts to support confidence, employment and business continuity. The unit will engage with peak business groups such as the AFGC on systemic issues relating to COVID-19 to ensure these are being addressed. It will also be a source of information for business groups on the Australian Government’s response to COVID-19 and the actions that agencies are taking to support business at this difficult time.

This will allow information to be disseminated quickly and effectively across the business community. The Federal Government has also created a National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) to coordinate advice on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic. It is designed to provide comprehensive advice to reduce impacts of the virus and help plot a path to recovery. The NCCC will work collaboratively across private-to-private and public-to-private networks to unlock resources, break bottlenecks and fix problems so Australian families, businesses and communities are supported.

During this time, the primary focus of the AFGC remains advocating for our sector. We are working with all levels of government and other stakeholders, taking part in key forums to provide information on challenges our sector is facing and also seek insights and assurances from government.

The AFGC is represented on the Food and Grocery Sector Group (FGSG) of the Federal Government’s Trusted Information Sharing Network (TISN), which is designed to prioritise and protect the integrity of ‘critical infrastructure’ across six sector groups. During this time, the groups have been very active, providing key information to government that has helped keep the supply chain running.

In Australia we are lucky because most of what we consume is grown and produced here. Nationally, we produce enough food to feed 75 million people – that is enough to feed our entire population three times over. We have a very safe, reliable and efficient food supply chain from the farm gate to the manufacturer and on to the retailer.

While international supply chain interruptions are being experienced in the current environment, the AFGC is working with key stakeholders, including suppliers and government, to ensure these are mitigated as much as possible. Their impact at the consumer level is anticipated to be negligible and the re-opening of China for business is a silver lining at this difficult time.

The great unknown in all of this is that we simply do not know how long social isolation measures to control the spread of COVID-19 will stay in place. There is no silver bullet, nor a crystal ball. But the commitment of the food and grocery manufacturing sector to provide Australians with the essentials will be a constant, even if it means changing the way we work.

At the other end of this, Australia’s food and grocery manufacturing sector will be stronger, illustrating that no matter what the crisis, our supply chain does not simply cope – it thrives.