Food & Drink Muse

Changing Consumer Habits: Reflections on Food Shortages in 2021

Lauren Stanton shares a retrospective account on the food shortages caused by the pandemic and asks what this means for present consumer habits.

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Image Credit: Michael Kwok, Flickr.com

2021 has been an unsettling time for the food and catering industry. The UK faced a third national lockdown on the 6th of January 2021, which destroyed many businesses’ hopes of recovering from losses originally incurred when COVID-19 hit Britain in March 2020. Indoor venues such as pubs and restaurants were permitted to reopen on the 17th of May 2021 and are now being threatened to close once more due to the significant threat of the Omicron variant, which is spreading rapidly. Alongside this, frequent food shortage issues have arisen due to a combination of the pandemic, climate change and Brexit, causing uncertainty and doubt in the public surrounding the unreliable nature of food availability.

As a nation, we thought the shortages of long-life food and toilet rolls would only last for a couple of weeks when the pandemic first hit, but we have still seen empty shelves throughout the last year. Climate change has played a major role in some of these shortages. During early October, Britain faced pasta shortages as droughts and record temperatures of 49.6C in June hit farms in Canada, which had a devastating effect on crop turnover. Higher than average global temperatures associated with climate change have a direct impact upon food production - particularly crops such as wheat, rice, and barley. Rising heat and rainfall has reduced soil quality, making the process of growing crops increasingly difficult for farmers. In the future, as temperatures rise further, the process of growing food will become progressively difficult and unreliable, potentially leading to a lack of consumer confidence surrounding food shopping.

Brexit has also played a role in the food shortages we experienced in 2021. Many workers and European HGV drivers returned to their home countries and chose to work elsewhere, which led to significant disruptions to the labour force of the food industry. For example, a shortage of seasonal agricultural workers in August 2021 meant that ripened fruits were left unpicked due to the decreased workforce to harvest them. Efforts were made to help with the shortage, as the Home Office recorded 16,000 workers arriving from 37 countries for the 2022 season. Also this Summer, the transport industry announced that it was short of roughly 100,000 HGV drivers. This meant that there were significant delays in the transportation of food from warehouses to supermarkets, leaving shelves empty. In response to this shortage, The Department for Education invested up to £10 million to create free intensive boot camps to train individuals to become HGV drivers, allowing them to gain a category C or category C&E license. Whilst support measures were put in place to reduce the impact of Brexit on food availability, regular occurrences of food shortages have ultimately led to a change in consumers' food shopping habits.

The accumulation of issues in the food industry caused by the aforementioned problems has instilled uncertainty in the public, which has led to panic-buying, as consumers have been stocking-up on their favourite foods and brands so they do not feel the pinch. As a result of this, many food banks have reported that the public is donating less food after so many stepped up to help at the height of the pandemic. This has an impact on families who rely on packages from food banks, who were particularly hit during the phasing out of the furlough scheme. The public has recognised the varying availability of food products due to the supply chain crisis, leading to an increased competition for food. This has led to some supermarkets imposing purchase limits on certain products to ensure fairness to customers and to reduce the impact of mass panic-buying.

Uncertainty surrounding this year’s food shortages has led to changing consumer habits, which has been made more noticeable now that the Christmas period has passed The food industry has noted the increased consumer interest in the purchasing of frozen food. This fast-growing grocery category saw the sales of frozen turkeys to be up by more than 400% in October compared to last year. Consumers have been buying in bulk and stocking up in preparation for Christmas and the New Year earlier than ever, which raises concerns that there will be further shortages for those who shop closer to the time. In addition, since the outbreak of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, restaurants have been faced with a colossal amount of Christmas dinner cancellations, as families are choosing to stay at home to protect their loved ones. Grays Court Hotel in York, for instance, has noted a 25% decrease in restaurant bookings since the Omicron wave hit the UK.

The supply chain crisis and regular food shortages we have witnessed in 2021 has changed consumer habits and behaviours. Our confidence surrounding the availability of food has diminished due to the expectation that when we go shopping, some of the supermarket shelves will be empty.

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