Many countries in the APAC region have been enforcing nationwide lockdowns over the past few weeks in an attempt to control the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, which has infected over 1.27 million people and caused almost 70,000 deaths worldwide as of April 6.
The initial implementation of lockdowns saw the F&B industry in many countries scrambling to get confirmation about whether or not F&B manufacturing would be able to continue operations and gain access to public COVID-19 support, which would only be made possible if these were classified as ‘essential services’.
Now that the dust has settled for the most part, it has become clear that although some countries have allowed F&B manufacturing and logistics to continue, food supply woes still loom large, especially in some of the countries that need this security the most.
Australia began its nationwide lockdown on March 23, closing its borders to foreigners and shutting down most services in the country.
In a live televised speech, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrision said: “For the next six months we need to work together [and need to learn to] moderate our behaviour and understand things need to change.”
“[This could be the] toughest year of our lives.”
He told Australians that they would be allowed to do ‘shopping for what you need, food and other essential supplies that enable you to remain at home and to do that shopping as infrequently as possible’, so some shops would be kept open, but no specific mention was made about F&B production.
The dairy and meat industries especially have been calling for formal legislation on this. Australian Meat Industry Council chief executive Patrick Hutchinson called for the meat supply chain to be made an essential service, and a statement from the dairy sector’s National Response Group to COVID-19, comprising of the Australian Dairy Products Federation, Australian Dairy Farmers and Dairy Australia echoed this for dairy.
“[We call on] State and Federal Governments, as well as local councils to acknowledge the collection and processing of dairy products is an essential service offered to communities across the country,” said the group.
“This means guaranteeing continuity for all milk collection operations across Australia and ensuring supply chains are kept open to manage product flows, in turn enabling the dairy industry to keep retail stores stocked and households and food-service facilities.”
According to Weekly Times, Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud backed this statement but added that: “Sadly the states have not provided detail around [whether dairy and other agriculture will be formally acknowledged as essential services].”
On March 29, Morrison announced that even stricter measures would be taken to ensure social distancing, but no formal acknowledgement of the dairy or meat sector’s statements were made.
New Zealand is currently under an Alert Level 4 lockdown, meaning that New Zealanders have been directed to ‘stay at home and stop all physical interactions with others outside of your household’ other than those in essential services.
According to the country’s official COVID-19 website, food has been classified as an essential service in the country.
“Essential businesses, and those that support them, will continue to provide the necessities of life for everyone in New Zealand during Alert Level 4,” it stated.
“This means food, medicine, healthcare, energy, fuel, waste-removal, internet and financial support will continue to be available.”
To reinforce this, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) added that the entire food supply chain was included in this list.
“Any entity involved in the supply, delivery, distribution and sale of food, beverage and other key consumer goods essential for maintaining the wellbeing of people,” said MBIE.
“[This includes] any entity involved in the packaging, production and processing of food and beverage products, whether for domestic consumption or export, relevant support services (e.g. food safety and verification, laboratory services, food safety), and any entity providing veterinary services.”
Dairies will be able to continue operations, subject to obeying physical distancing rules.
“Dairies provide basic food items like bread and milk to people close to where they live, especially the elderly who may not be able to get to a supermarket. However, they will need to operate a strict ‘one-in one-out’ policy and they won’t be allowed to sell food prepared on the premises,” MBIE Deputy CEO Paul Stocks told The Spinoff.
“If any dairy breaks the rules, we will shut it down. If there is evidence of systemic abuse, we will remove them from the essential services list.”
New Zealand’s approach to handling COVID-19 has become a source of envy for some Australian dissatisfied with Morrison’s approach. Many on social media have gone as far as to call Australia the ‘New New Zealand’.
"Due to appalling lack of leadership here, and superb leadership over there, let's surrender Australia to New Zealand immediately," said a netizen whilst posting a picture of a map relabelling Australia as ‘New New Zealand’ – a picture that received over 18,000 shares and 7,000 reactions.
In the Philippines, grocery stores are considered essential and allowed to remain open, but food supply, especially that of finished foods, has become an increasingly rising concern.
According to a report by trade association Food Industry Asia, local governments have implemented strict screenings for all travel, making deliveries and logistics difficult as well as hindering manpower provision for food production.
“Inventory of finished products is getting low, and the food sector has reduced workforce capacity to 50%,” said the report.
“Production is facing problems in manufacturing products due to the restrictions of movements for people and goods.”
The local Department of Agriculture has called for local governments to allow food manufacturing company employees throughout the supply chain to go to work to ensure adequate food supply – but even if allowed, workers may be too frightened to do so given President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent threats of violence for disobedient Filipinos.
"It is getting worse. So once again I'm telling you the seriousness of the problem and that you must listen," Duterte said via a live telecast.
"My orders to the police and military [are that] if there is trouble and they fight back and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead.
"Is that understood? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I will bury you."
The Indonesian Ministry of Industry confirmed via a formal statement that food and beverage production is considered an essential service in the country, and encouraged companies to continue operations.
“Food and beverage products play a crucial role in fulfilling the society’s processed food needs and ensuring the continued food supply especially in this fight against the spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia,” said the statement, signed by Minister of Industry Agus Gumiwanf Kartasasmita.
“We appreciate food and beverage companies’ continued production during these difficult times, and appeal that these continue to do so whilst ensuring your own safety. The government has also announced customs duty relief for all raw materials, ease of import processes and a guaranteed strategic food team [to provide help].”
This applies to the entire food supply chain, including logistics service providers and distributors.
Malaysian Agriculture and Food Industry Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee issued a statement on March 30 saying that food supply sectors and the relevant chains of essential services would be allowed to operate as usual to ensure sufficient supply for the country.
"Logistics and transportation services that support the supply chain and food marketing including agricultural and livestock production that are defined as critical are also allowed to operate with minimum staffing,” he said.
“These industries must also play their part to ensure implementation of proper testing and prevention measures are in place at the company, to safeguard employee and customer against COVID-19.
“The ministry will continue to monitor and cooperate with producers and distributors to ensure there is adequate food supply."
However, some of these prevention measures have resulted in necessary manpower cuts, whereas strict travel restrictions in the country mean that employees who stay further from the factories/workplaces may not be able to get to work. These include no vehicles allowed on roads at certain hours as well as a one person per car rule.
Thailand has implemented a nationwide curfew to be imposed from 10pm to 4am starting from April 3, although limited travel (with social distancing measures observed) will still be allowed in the day.
“To increase the effectiveness of the effort to control the spread and reduce commutes, I am issuing a curfew order nationwide,” said Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in a televised announcement.
“Please don’t panic and hoard goods because you can come out to buy them in the daytime as usual.”
According to The Star, exemptions will be made for ‘essential staff’, including those involved in the transport of food products. Food manufacturing operations are unlikely to be affected, as the curfew is out of normal working hours.
Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce has set up seven ‘war rooms’ in preparation of battling COVID-19, which are joint working groups between the relevant industries and government departments to ensure sufficient, uninterrupted supply of necessities.
As it is, three of these are food-related: Rice, fruits and vegetables, and processed foods. The other four are livestock, medical supplies, logistics & delivery, and animal feed.
"The seven war rooms [will look to] monitor the situation about manufacturing, processing, trading, export and product distribution in new channels such as home delivery," said Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit after a high-level commerce meeting.
Thailand declared a nationwide State of Emergency on March 25, and most factories producing F&B products have been allowed to continue operations.
India announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, but Prime Minster Narendra Modi did not specify in his speech whether food and beverage manufacturing would be considered an essential service.
The Ministry of Home Affairs later issued a set of guidelines saying that essential services included: “Shops, including ration shops (under PDS), dealing with food, groceries, fruits and vegetables, dairy and milk booths, meat and fish, animal fodder.
“However, district authorities may encourage and facilitate home delivery to minimise the movement of individuals outside their homes.”
This lack of detail left F&B companies in the dark, leading big firms such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Britannia Industries, Mondelez, PepsiCo and more to submit letters to the government requesting for the F&B manufacturing sector to be deemed as an ‘essential service’ and thus exempted from restrictions under the lockdown in order to continue production.
“To maintain regular supplies, it is necessary that this sector is not put under any work and movement restrictions. Along with the food and beverage sector, food ingredients companies should also be allowed to operate smoothly,” said one of the letters.
An updated set of guidelines also allowed for the transportation of all goods ‘without distinction of essential and non-essential’, and ‘the entire supply chain of milk collection and distribution, including its packaging material’, but production of other F&B manufacturing functions have not seen further response by the government so far.
Workers of all walks of life have reported being caned by police or worse when trying to go from one place to another, likely making it difficult for production workers to get to work. News of starvation due to lack of wages abounds, and confusion everywhere is even more apparent.
"Poverty will kill us before the virus," rural poor and migrants have been quoted as saying, whereas chairman of the Indian Farmers Forum Ajay Vir Jakhar, told Financial Times that: “There is a lot of anxiety among farmers because they do not know what the law is today.”
“The government was not prepared and now they are improvising. There is a lot of confusion among farmers about what is happening and not happening.”