From Field to Plate

As consumers begin to scrutinise supermarkets and retailers more rigorously, the complexity and length of the food supply chain from producers to shop shelves has become a controversial issue. Fruits, vegetables, and raw meat tend to have shorter supply chains than processed foods; however, the product has still traded hands several times before being purchased from a shop or supermarket. Buying direct from the producer shortens the chain to one simple transaction, making the system cleaner and fresher.

A typical supermarket supply chain might consist of up to four or five stages not including transportation to get food from the producer to the consumer. Produce is moved from a farm to a manufacturer or a processor, then onto a warehouse or distribution centre, then to the supermarket. Each stage provides its own unique service, but – to cut down on unnecessary transport, packaging, and production costs – could this be combined into one stage?

Due to the intricacy of the chain – with each link depending upon the other – there is a huge risk that when one point fails, the whole system fails. Recent threats to the food supply chain include flooding and worker strikes, not to mention the possible future disruption that the UK’s exit from the EU might bring. A perfect example is the recent courgette and lettuce shortage in the UK which was due to wet and cold weather in Spain. The supply of the imported vegetables is lessened from the very start of the chain – at the producer – and so we see wholesale prices at least triple the normal levels for the time of year.

Looking closer to home, after Carlisle’s McVitie’s biscuit factory suffered damage in the Cumbria floods a few years ago, there has been a notable shortage of their produce on our supermarket shelves. Here, we see a break in the chain at a processing level. There were even reports of ‘emergency biscuits’ being flown in to keep the balance in the supplier-consumer structure. The Government has recently been working hard to address the recurrence and handling of these destabilising events. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) are constantly liaising with Defra and groups like the NFU and the Food and Drink Federation to ensure information is passed through the entire food supply chain. However, while the Government is responsible for building trading relationship and the direction Britain takes throughout the Brexit process, retailers and suppliers are expected to handle other glitches in the supply chain.

A huge problem resulting from the numerous points in the chain is the amount of distance the produce travels to get from farm to plate; the more stages to the system, the more food miles covered. In 2010, the total distance travelled by retailer fleets was 1.3 billion kilometres and despite growing efficiency in transport, this number is still high. Lorries and ships – not to mention the amount of packaging that is discarded and changed at the different processes – contribute to a large part of the pollution produced in the UK. Consumers are becoming more concerned about food miles and carbon footprints. If climate change reports are true, we know that the pollution caused by CO2 emissions leads to extreme changes in weather, causing the disruptions in the food chain previously mentioned; so, is the complex supply chain a failing system?

To cut down on the pollution and problems caused by the complex retail food chain, consumers can buy directly from the producer. Doing so limits the transporting and processing of goods to just one simple journey and keeps produce as fresh as possible. As consumers begin to choose modest clean-eating habits like the paleo diet, they will seek out a clean and direct origin. The trend is leaning towards knowing the provenance of our food, so we should also be aware of how many times our food has changed hands before it gets to our kitchen. Clean-eating needs a clean, compact supply chain.