Despite coronavirus worries, Europe’s food system is stable

BERGERAC, France — The coronavirus has upended most aspects of life in Europe, but after a spate of hoarding early in the pandemic, shopping has returned to normal as food producers and retailers work to keep supply chains flowing and shelves stocked. This could be instructive to the United States, which is behind Europe in the progression of the disease.

“Our aim is to keep things as normal as possible,” said Pekka Pesonen, secretary general of COPA-COGECA, a trade group representing farmers and agricultural cooperatives across the European Union.

When coronavirus diagnoses and deaths soared in March and governments put populations on lockdown, there was “an awful lot of panic buying,” said Neil McMillan, director of advocacy and political affairs at EuroCommerce, a trade group representing retailers and wholesalers. Shoppers stripped supermarket shelves of pasta and flour, and some stores had Christmas-like crowds.

Since then, though, demand has even dipped below normal for certain premium items, McMillan said. While there’s not a lot of data yet on how food prices have been affected, he says that they don’t seem to be rising overall and that the price of meat and dairy may have decreased.

But consumer confidence seems shaken. During the financial crisis of 2007-08, although people stopped going to restaurants, they were still buying slightly more premium products, as if to console themselves, McMillan said. That doesn’t seem to be happening now — if anything, consumers are choosing cheaper cuts of meat and buying less of seasonal products like lamb. “People are nervous about the future,” he ventured, with the caveat that he was speaking more from his own impressions than hard data. “They’re nervous about their own jobs, apart from everything else, so they’re tending to be a bit more careful about what they buy.”

Confinement and sanitary measures are also changing the way people shop. To reduce contagion risks, many European supermarkets — like those in the United States — are limiting the number of customers allowed inside buildings at one time, which can mean long queues to enter stores. Some countries, like France, require people leaving their house to carry a written document justifying the action. Food shopping is a permitted exception to quarantine rules, but it has become more onerous. “It’s more difficult to shop now, and people are going out less frequently,” McMillan said.

Globally, food prices fell by 4.3 percent in March as the coronavirus depressed demand, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, a monthly measure of the international price of a basket of food commodities, which was published on Thursday. Wheat prices fell despite moves by Russia and Kazakhstan to limit exports in order to secure domestic reserves. Rice prices, however, rose for the third straight month, due in part to Covid-19-related stockpiling and Vietnam’s decision to pause new export contracts in order to ensure its own supply, according to the report.

Stocks of staples like wheat and rice are strong and prices are fairly stable, said the International Food Policy Research Institute. But even though the global food system is functioning well now, the FAO warned this week that it will be “tested and strained in the coming weeks and months” due to the pandemic. To avert a “looming food crisis,” the organization is urging prompt action to protect the most vulnerable people and minimize disruptions to food supply chains.

In Europe, one area of concern is fresh produce. Several EU countries have closed their borders, locking out the foreign workers who plant and harvest fruits and vegetables. Already, French growers have reported being forced to leave asparagus to rot in the ground because of a lack of laborers to harvest it. Some countries have called upon newly unemployed city dwellers to work in the fields. If these labor issues can’t be remedied — and quickly — Pesonen says, Europe could see a shortage of fresh produce in the coming months, which would also increase prices. He added that the window of opportunity to fix this problem is narrow, since the planting season and the harvest of early crops are already underway.

Transportation bottlenecks are another worry. When border restrictions first took effect, trucks carrying food, livestock, and other goods idled in miles-long lines at checkpoints, though these disruptions seem to have largely subsided. But if people who work in manufacturing and production were to get sick in large numbers, panic buying could return along with the bottlenecks, McMillan said.

In an assessment presented to EU agriculture ministers last week, Pesonen’s group outlined other concerns about how COVID-19 might affect the region’s farming, forestry, and fisheries sector. The fresh produce market has weakened, and fishing and aquaculture industries have been hard hit, the report says. Decreased demand, trade disputes, and labor concerns could lead to an excess supply of wine and hurt grape growers next year. For now, the group’s main priority is to maintain the functioning of the EU’s single market — that is, one territory without internal borders or other obstacles to the movement of goods and services.

“We need to keep the borders open and goods flowing back and forth,” Pesonen said. “To disrupt that would seriously disrupt food security in the medium term in the EU.”