Snow and ice has kept millions from their workplaces, and bosses in all industries can but shrug at the empty desks and unmet deadlines. But the food sector is different. Everyone has to eat, whatever the weather, and the food chain – from field to final consumer – is uniquely vulnerable to meteorological treachery.
After 18 months of recession, a big dumping of snow and all the disruption that brings to food supplies is hardly what the food industry needs. It could be enough to freeze the green shoots of recovery just as they start to poke out of the ground.
And not just the proverbial green shoots, either. Beans, peas, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, grain. Farmers are starting to report frost bitten crops that won’t be fit for human consumption later in the year.
Concerns are already being raised over availability of certain snow-felled vegetables later in the year. That could result not only in higher produce prices but it will have a knock on effect to other foodstuffs too: Ingredient manufacturers will struggle with higher raw material prices; and food manufacturers, in turn, will pay more for inputs.
Forgive me for being doom and gloom at the start of a new year, but history has shown that a harsh winter can have a catastrophic effect on food supply. After the infamous winter of 1946-7 in the UK, for instance, cereal and potato crops were down 10-20 per cent that year, and 25 per cent of sheep stocks were lost.
It’s not just journalists who display a heightened sense of drama and a siege mentality with a fresh fall of snow, either.
Those who can make it to the supermarket are buying up extra supplies, just in case next week they can’t get there. At the same time, even here in Southern France heavy goods vehicles – including those carrying food stocks to replenish the shelves – were being pulled over on the motorways last week as freezing sleet and ice made the motorways too dangerous.
Fair enough, infrastructure in Europe today is immeasurably better than in it was in 1947. Regional distribution centres mean manufacturers are keeping supply as consistent as they can, and some areas are worse than others; risk managers can pull a wad of contingency plans out of their woollen sleeves within days. It’s unlikely anyone will starve in Europe this winter. They just may not be able to get their favourite pies or biscuits.
But failure to get the food people want to buy into the shops on time means failure to cash in on high demand. It could prompt shoppers to switch to a new brand – and they might not switch back; they might even realize they can live without a product after all.
No data is available yet about the cost of last week’s big freeze on the European food sector. But if the weathermen do not herald some warmer temperatures soon, the forecast for food will be grim.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.