What Did You Do in the Coronavirus War, Daddy?

Well, what a to-do! Just as the nation achingly comes to terms with Brexit, we’re sand-bagged with COVID-19. Bugger! But, on the brighter side, our viral tribulations, apparently, are evoking the cooperative, all pulling together spirit of The War Years – apart from minor lapses such as hand-to-hand fighting in the supermarket aisles and stripping the shelves of staples such that Tesco Extra looks like some Eastern European bare-boned store when the Iron Curtain was still down. We’ve been spared formal food rationing which, incidentally was introduced 80 years ago this past January with bacon, butter and sugar first to be listed in 1940 and sweeties (1953) and cheese and meat last to come “off the ration” (1954). David has a clear early 1950s memory of playing “shop” with his sibling – she 6 he 3 – using the family’s coupons as currency, National dried milk powder tins and angular syrupy Welfare concentrated orange bottles on the pretend shop shelf, with his sister the authoritative shopkeeper and he the compliant customer. Incidentally, it was during these formative food rationing years that we Brits honed our internationally-acknowledged core competence in queueing. Lest you think that Boris’s “Let’s Get Brexit Done” was an unique clarion call, the Tories were trotting this out as an election pledge on food rationing in 1951, although it took a further 3 years to actually execute – mmmm, sounds a bit like what may happen to Brexit in a coronavirus-distracted world!

Of course, we’re doing supermarket-based rationing right now and  we’ve all chuckled at the spoof maximum purchase notices:

  • Tesco: 2 toilet rolls, 1kg. rice, 2 packets dry pasta;
  • Morrisons: 3 toilet rolls, 1 bottle hand sanitizer, 4 pints green top  milk;
  • Aldi: 2 trumpets, 1 arc welding set, 1 chimpanzee costume.
Typically English, we ask our customers to behave themselves…
… until we need to enforce more strongly!

But, we are not at WW2 food rationing levels of hardship when our issues of concern are securing Tesco delivery slots for our weekly groceries and, God forbid, being limited to a paltry maximum of 80 items, bitching because they’re out of plain flour (and when we secured this scarce resource would we know what to do with it?), and sighing with relief that gluten-free, agave-sweetened chocolate brioche are still available. All-in-all, and considering that one-third of our total food supply is imported, the resilience of our supply chains is exceedingly strong. Consumer expectations are so high but it’s no bad thing for shoppers to embrace the fact that it’s not the end of the world if we can’t secure everything we want whenever we want it. You’ll recall the primal screams when bad weather in Spain three years or so ago pushed iceberg lettuce prices from tuppence to some multiple of tuppence. Our wartime family understood the notion of seasonality for food and so should we now. Incidentally, the current run on staple foods may auger well for an uptick in home cooking. As an aside, in 1960, David used to nip down to Mr. Fink’s The Fruiterer near to his school in Keswick, Cumberland, and use his pocket money to buy 4 oz. of fresh lychees as a treat with no thought how this fragile tropical delicacy arrived from Malaya. International supply chains for perishables weren’t too shabby 60 years ago!

Fresh produce wholesalers that have lost the restaurant business are becoming now your friendly local greengrocer!

David’s late Mum and Dad lived and worked in a South Wales steel town in the late-1940s. They were then de-linked from their home village which was a challenging 45 miles away (no car, basic public transport). They had little or no social network  – so, for example, no “off ration” extras from a friendly local butcher (à la Lance-Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army fame). His Mum recalled 1947 as being the “hungriest” year of the period 1940 to 1950. David’s sister was 2 and came first in the family feeding line. Fresh fruit & vegetables were never rationed but, often, in short supply and, unexpectedly, Mum found a bunch of fresh grapes to buy in the local market. Home she went to feed these sugar-filled treats to Jennifer and she recalled peeling them and eating the skins herself to keep her grumbling tummy quiet! In 2020, 5,000 food parcels are handed out each day in UK (one-third of them to children), so tummies continue to rumble in 2020 UK which is hardly a matter of pride for us as a leading global developed country. And, then, there’s the 800 million people in our  world that wake up and go to bed hungry. But, that’s another hugely serious matter.

War time Churchillian language to calm the masses when searching frantically for a pack of spaghetti!

What’s for dinner tonight in the “self-isolating” Hughes household? The exigencies of the time encourage serving nursery food – and it’s corned beef hash. Of course, Fray Bentos comes to mind. The  father of organic chemistry, German scientist von Liebig (yes, of condenser fame) beavered away at extracting the essence of meat as a means of taking the beef cattle bounty of the South American Pampas to the booming industrialising cities of Europe (in pre-freezer transportation days). Compagnie Liebig, with a business based in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, established the Fray Bentos corned beef and the Oxo brands. Dumb David remembers driving past the City of Fray Bentos en route to Punta del Este (Uruguay’s West Palm Beach) where he was speaking and  wondering why you’d name a city after a corned beef brand. Corned beef (or Bully Beef as it was known to the British Forces in WW2) is still sold in excruciatingly difficult-to-open cans with those peculiar easy-to-lose keys. Generations of home cooks have risked tetanus and lockjaw so that their families can enjoy their favourite comfort food!

We are slap bang in the middle of scary times. From  an agriculture and food industry perspective, let’s hope that our tribulations will spawn a more positive era and a better understanding of food issues such as those relating to food security, food equity, food safety, even food cooking at home and our children’s understanding of where food comes from, how it is produced and by whom and its impact on our planet. Whether it be a nasty human or animal virus (coronavirus is both i.e. it’s zoonotic), climate change-induced calamity (floods, droughts, fires, etc.), and vituperative trade policy spats, directions in our world  seem to be increasingly uncertain. Super-efficient JIT supply chains have their moment but, maybe, we should focus on those with more robustness. This will bring additional costs and the need for creative products and routes to market for “waste”.

How we shop for groceries is in flux – the return of “The Big Shop” but purchased online and delivered to our door; increasingly more frugal shopping (UK household incomes are forecasted to decline by at least 5% this year); less focus on quality and more on availability; more careful selection of items that are perceived to contribute to the health and well-being of the family; redefining convenience to include ease of securing grocery needs for the family for the week and less on the immediate Food-2-Go requirements of the individual; and declining consumer confidence in the future manifested as squirreling behaviour for “essentials”. But, when the air raid sirens sound the all clear, will we revert to avaricious consumer type and forget the lessons learnt during the coronavirus war of 2020?

Both of us hope that you and your families will prevail and prosper and we look forward  to interacting with you when the evil mist dissipates.

Posted in Consumer, General, Supply Chain, Trends
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About the authors
Prof David Hughes: Around the world, David speaks to senior agribusiness and food industry managers about global food industry developments that are and will affect their businesses and industry. Energetic, engaging, humorous and insightful, David gains the very highest evaluations at seminars, conferences and Board level discussions in every continent he visits. Miguel Flavián: works for several Spanish organisations and companies to help them to learn from the developments of the British grocery market and improve their business back home.
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