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COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and the food supply

Fear surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to panic buying and stock-piling in Australia and New Zealand.

Shelf-stable items such as flour, rice, pasta and canned goods have experienced a sharp upturn in sales as people are being asked to self-isolate or distance themselves from others. How is the food industry holding up under the pressure?

Food availability

The Australian and New Zealand Food & Grocery Councils say they are working closely with suppliers and supermarkets to ensure minimal disruption to supply chains. They say Australian and New Zealand consumers can be confident essential products will continue to be available as both countries attempt to curb the spread of the virus. The food and grocery sector are working closely with Government, mitigating any issues as they arise and continuing to call on consumers to avoid stock-piling. Some supermarkets have instigated elderly and disabled-only shopping times, reduced opening hours, and implemented other measures to protect staff.

Despite the calls for calm from both Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers and food industry leaders, supermarkets have experienced a doubling in demand and have had trouble adequately restocking. This has led to customer frustration and disappointment at finding items out of stock.

Economic impact on the food sector

The broader economy has suffered extreme disruption caused by COVID-19, including the food sector. Live seafood exports have been particularly hit hard when China stopped accepting cargo on 26 January. Australia and New Zealand export large amounts of food and agriculture products to China. Rabobank reports rock lobster exports from Australia and New Zealand will be the most exposed, with some short-term disruption of meat and dairy. New Zealand mutton shipments are heavily impacted. The restaurant industry is experiencing devastation as the hospitality sector has been all but shut down as people are asked to stay at home. In Australia, restaurants and cafes have moved to take away and home delivery only. Under Alert Level 4 restrictions in New Zealand take-away is not permitted and only prepared meal delivery services are considered essential and can operate. A ray of hope has appeared on NSW coastal dairy farms from increased demand of dairy products in supermarkets that they can meet thanks to late summer rain and green pastures.

The combination of COVID-19 virus, falling oil prices (which means less sugar is sold for biofuel) and the collapse of the Brazilian currency (Brazil is one of the biggest sugar producers in the world) have led to a 15% drop in global sugar prices and this will impact on Australian growers and millers.

COVID-19 and Food safety

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) says transmission of COVID-19 through food is unlikely and there is no evidence to date that this occurs. They say everyone should practice good hygiene such as washing hands regularly, coughing/sneezing into your elbow and avoid close contact with people. They say as an added precaution, those with respiratory illness should avoid preparing food for others and seek medical attention. See FSANZ information on Novel Coronavirus and food safety here.

You can find the latest advice from the Australian Health Department here, and from the New Zealand government here and this includes advice for health professionals.


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