Coronavirus: Food supply focus of meeting with grocery sector

Contingency plans discussed around public message that panic buying is unnecessary

A high-level meeting involving Government officials and representatives of the grocery sector has taken place to discuss contingency plans for food supplies in the event that the coronavirus spreads widely.

The meeting involving retail representative bodies, large grocery retailers and retail distributors was chaired by Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphreys and took place after widespread panic buying of products such as face masks and hand sanitisers across Ireland.

Such items have been virtually impossible to source in pharmacies and medical supply shops since the middle of last month and prices have jumped by more than 500 per cent in some instances.

There have also been reports of people in other countries where the coronavirus has taken hold stockpiling food, water and over-the-counter medications. One large retailer in Australia was even said to be rationing toilet paper as people stocked up in case of future shortages.

Ms Humphreys and the retail sector moved quickly to assure the public here that such panic buying was unnecessary and would only serve to exacerbate supply issues.

Grocery retailers discussed how their businesses were preparing for Covid-19 to ensure the safety of employees and continuation of business and food supply chains for customers.

The meeting was part of the work of the Cabinet subcommittee set up to manage the unfolding situation.

Retail preparations

“I am greatly encouraged by the preparations that retailers and suppliers are making to ensure that consumers have access to the range of grocery goods that they need,” Ms Humphreys said.

She added she was “also assured that grocery supply chains are well-stocked and there is ample supply to meet demand”.

She said retailers and suppliers were working on contingency plans “and are following the public health advice provided by Government on a daily basis, so that health is prioritised for employees and consumers, and food supply chains can continue to function with minimal disruption”.

She stressed that the country remained in a containment phase, but said her focus and that of her department and relevant agencies was “on maintaining continuity of business for whatever event may unfold. In that light we need to ensure that we are all collectively preparing across the full range of potential scenarios”.

Describing the engagement with the grocery retailers and suppliers and retail representative bodies as “constructive and informative”, she said the department would “continue to engage over the coming days and weeks”.

Stock levels

Musgrave, the parent company behind Supervalu, said it had been "closely monitoring the developing situation" and was "in regular liaison with relevant stakeholders in line with our existing business continuity plans".

The spokesman said all its operational locations as well as all stores across its network of brands were “adhering to the latest updated guidelines provided by the HSE” and he stressed that, as part of its existing business continuity plans, “we have worked with suppliers to build up stock levels they maintain in recent years and increased our own stockholding.

“As a result, we are advising consumers that there is no need to change their shopping habits, as there is sufficient stock within the supply chain.”

An Aldi spokesman told The Irish Times that the retailer was "monitoring the status of any potentially affected products".

He said it had “comprehensive plans in place to minimise any disruption for our customers. There has been strong customer demand for some product lines. To keep disruption to a minimum, we are working with suppliers to increase the volume of certain products such as canned and frozen goods.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast