Supermarkets could be forced to tell the government what food they have under plans being drawn up in the Coronavirus Bill.
The new laws, being debated by MPs today, will provide ‘powers to require information about food supply chains’ and could mean suppliers face hefty fines if they do not comply.
The Government is currently collaborating with the food sector in an effort to avoid further disruption to supply chains – but the new regulations will allow it to force suppliers to provide information if they refuse to volunteer it.
A House of Commons briefing paper on the bill states: ‘While Defra “anticipate[s] ongoing collaboration on a voluntary basis between Government and industry”, the explanatory notes to the Bill state that it is “right and proper” to plan for a scenario in which voluntary requests for information were not complied with, “in order to ensure Government has the necessary information to build a clear understanding of the situation, make informed judgements and respond effectively”.
‘The Bill therefore gives powers to require the provision of such information.’
Revealing the location of certain food stocks’ could be required under the plans, according to the briefing. Those within the food chain – including ‘producers’ and ‘intermediaries’ – could face a maximum penalty of ‘1% of turnover in the most recent accounting period’ if they do not comply.
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It also notes that Britain’s food stocks rely on ‘just-in-time’ supply chains – but says there are ‘sophisticated logistics operations and contingency plans’ in place to ‘respond rapidly to potential disruption’.
The new measures come as a food policy expert said that a rationing scheme is needed to see the country through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Professor Tim Lang wrote to the Prime Minister ‘out of immediate concern about the emerging food crisis’ and in the letter described public messaging about food supply as ‘weak and unconvincing’.
He also criticised the Government for ‘blaming’ consumers who are going out to buy groceries to last a few days.
The retail industry has insisted there is enough food for everyone and ministers have said rationing is unnecessary, but customers have been faced with empty shelves and have struggled to get everything on their shopping lists.
Supplies of toilet roll and hand sanitisers have been particularly badly hit.
Environment Secretary George Eustice has said there is no shortage of food in the country, with manufacturers having increased production by 50%.
But in a letter to Boris Johnson, dated March 20, experts including Prof Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, called on the Government to ‘initiate a health-based food-rationing scheme to see the country through this crisis’.
The letter says: ‘This should start from Public Health England’s Eatwell Plate, our official nutrition guidelines, and draw on expertise from the devolved administrations, and relevant disciplines.’
The professor’s letter calls on the Government to: ‘Announce immediately that this new Food Rationing Scheme will be open, equitable and based on health needs, taking account of age, income, and vulnerability, and that this will be applied UK-wide.’
He said there needs to be a public food committee which ‘addresses the interest of the public’, adding: ‘What is being exposed is the lack of devolved regional and local food engagement.’
He added: ‘We’re in a bad place, to be stark with you.’
Prof Lang added: ‘The public is absolutely understandable to act in a fearful way. The way to deal with food fears in these circumstances is not to start blaming them.
‘It’s stupid. Absolutely stupid.’
Meanwhile, Allergy UK said it is very aware of the impact of ‘bulk buying’ on people who need ‘free-from’ products.
The charity said: ‘We have highlighted this issue through all our communication channels and are working together with other partners to bring this to the attention of government departments and agencies on the basis of the needs of people living with food allergy and its potential status as an “underlying condition”.’
Elsewhere, shopworkers trade union Usdaw welcomed Morrisons agreeing to new safety measures, including perspex screens, to help protect checkout operators.
Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said: ‘We have increasing concerns about the safety and welfare of staff in stores.
‘The scenes in stores over the weekend and behaviour of some customers mean that supermarkets need to go further to protect the health, safety and welfare of shop workers.’
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Source: Metro News UK