Shoppers urged to be patient as Victorian coronavirus restrictions impact food supply

Victorians are being urged not to buy more meat and vegetables than they need, as the rise of COVID-19 cases across the state forces food processors to reduce staff numbers.

There are warnings some food supply will be impacted in the coming weeks, as industries adapt to tough new restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus, but experts say the pain will be short-lived.

Werribee vegetable farmer Catherine Velisha said the first round of restrictions, which led to empty shelves, was intense for farmers but they managed to keep supermarkets well supplied.

“COVID is obviously causing havoc in everyone’s lives but you know farmers are used to rain, drought, supply shortages, supply abundance. It’s just another day in the office really,” she said.

She urged shoppers to be patient and sensible.

Workers harvesting cauliflower in the early morning on a farm at Werribee. Workers harvesting cauliflower in the early morning on a farm at Werribee.
Farmers say there is enough food, but there could be supply chain issues if people stock up.(ABC News: Jess Davis)

“If there are any gaps, it’s just a little bit of a supply chain issue with obviously people trying to buy a little bit more, but there is definitely food in that supply chain,” Ms Velisha said.

“So if you can’t get your tomato today you’ll be able to get it tomorrow.”

Meat shortages likely

The Australian Meat Industry Council warned a reduction in staff at abattoirs would lead to less meat being available for customers.

“Overall it would move towards a 30 per cent reduction, give or take, in supply chain production, which would in turn lead to a reduction of saleable meat within the Victorian community, as well as a reduction in the opportunity for product to also be exported around the world,” meat industry council CEO Patrick Hutchinson said.

Chickens on conveyer belt at Hazeldene's in central VictoriaChickens on conveyer belt at Hazeldene's in central Victoria
There have been coronavirus clusters in abattoirs and meat processors across Victoria. Tough new restrictions aim to prevent more.(ABC Rural: Jess Davis)

But Flavio Macau, an expert in supply chain management at Edith Cowan University, said any potential shortages would mainly be due to people buying excess products, rather than reduced processing capacity.

“People will rush to the supermarket and even if they don’t need that meat right now people will go because they will be scared and afraid about the fear of missing out,” Dr Macau said.

“Later on, things should get back to normal in the medium term.

A Woolworths spokesperson said the supermarket chain was confident of maintaining a good supply to Victorians.

“We’re working through the implications of the Victorian Government’s announcements with our key suppliers,” the spokesperson said.

“We’re confident we’ll be able to maintain a good supply of fresh food for our Victorian customers.

“We’ll monitor the impact closely as the restrictions come into effect.”

Short-lived pain

In announcing the changes to food supply industries yesterday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews warned there may be some gaps on shelves.

“I can’t guarantee that everybody will get every product they want in the quantities they want, but everything you need will be there and there is no need to be doing anything else other than buying things that you need when you need them,” he said.

Premier Daniel Andrews at the daily press conference.Premier Daniel Andrews at the daily press conference.
Premier Daniel Andrews says people should not expect to buy everything they want in the quantities they want it.(News Video)

But Dr Macau said he did not expect shortages or supply chain issues to last as long as they did in the first wave.

“The first time, we have to remember, it [the shortage] was nationwide, so everyone in every state was looking for more product at the same time. This time it is more localised,” he said.

“Also, the first time it was pretty new for people. No-one was really expecting what would come.

Dr Macau encouraged meat processors who usually exported their product to consider selling it to the domestic market.

“Will they prioritise their export contracts and what they are sending overseas — and usually they make big bucks doing that — or will they prioritise the local market and keep the supermarkets and the local public supply?” he said.

“That is a management decision and a very important decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Cracks in the system

University of Melbourne food systems expert Rachel Carey said the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted vulnerabilities in the “just in time” food supply system.

Empty shelves in the meat department at a Coles supermarket.Empty shelves in the meat department at a Coles supermarket.
People buying more than they need and restrictions on abattoirs could lead to some meat products being unavailable in the short term.(ABC News: Melissa Brown)

“If you’re seeing empty supermarket shelves, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t food in the system,” Dr Carey said.

“It just means that there’s a bit of a lag, that food needs to get through.

Dr Carey said there was a bigger problem than what was on or not on supermarket shelves.

“I actually think the more significant issue here is people’s ability to buy what’s on the shelves because of the economic crisis that’s accompanying the impacts,” she said.

“There is a rising number of people who are just not going be able to afford access to a healthy diet — and that honestly is the bigger issue at the moment.”

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