Government launches task force to avoid empty shelves in supermarkets

Government launches task force to avoid empty shelves in supermarkets
A sign in a Carrefour notifies customers that purchases of certain food stuffs will be limited to prevent stockpiling. Photo by Helen Lyons/The Brussels Times.

The Federal Government has created an “agri-food task force” to avoid empty shelves in Belgian supermarkets as a result of the war in Ukraine.

“Today we are not in a situation of food shortages. It is precisely to make sure that it stays that way that we have set up this task force,” said Federal Minister of Economy Pierre-Yves Dermagne (PS) in a video interview.

A taskforce that includes Dermagne, Agriculture Minister David Clarinval (MR) and State Secretary for Consumer Protection Eva De Bleeker (Open VLD) will work with agricultural organisations, food and trade federations – as well as the Regions – to jointly anticipate problems in the food chain and develop action plans.

Translation: Taskforce to anticipate shortages in the food industry. "We are not talking about shortages today, but the taskforce aims to anticipate the future consequences of the war in Ukraine"

“It is extremely important that we protect companies and consumers from possible shortages in the food sector,” De Bleeker said in a statement.

Grocery stores have changed in a number of ways following the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Russian products were removed from shelves in many places, prices soared for breads and grains (both countries are normally major exporters) and some stores even began rationing certain products to prevent the sort of hoarding seen during the early months of the pandemic.

A shortage of Ukrainian sunflower oil (Ukraine exports accounts for no less than 35 to 45% of the EU's consumption) even threatens the availability of Belgian frites and mayonnaise, and mustard producers worry about meeting production goals.

Alternative ingredients could help, but regulations for labelling are rigid

One potential solution for which the task force is advocating is for food producers to switch out ingredients, replacing the ones in short supply with more available alternatives.

But Belgium and the EU have strict rules regarding the accurate labelling of products, and it isn’t easy for a company to simply change their packaging on a dime. Labels are often printed months in advance.

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“There are solutions for these acute situations of raw material shortages, there are alternative ingredients. But these solutions imply that the labelling of certain products will have to be changed constantly, which is just impossible,” explained De Bleeker.

“Therefore, I ask the competent control authorities to be flexible and focus on important statements such as the presence or absence of allergens.”

Food sector was already facing pressure

Even before the war in Ukraine, the food sector was experiencing pressure from increased energy prices and a rise in global commodity prices.

The food sector warned it was headed for a “historically low profitability of 2.6 percent” back in December for these reasons, along with the rise in labour costs.

Belgium’s labour costs are the third highest in the EU, largely due to the wage indexation which aims to ensure that people’s pay keeps pace with inflation.

Even still, inflation has been rising rapidly in recent years and unions say wages aren’t keeping up with the costs of living.

One thing seems certain: in addition to the skyrocketing costs for housing, heating and fuel that were driving anxiety even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rising food prices will likely be added to the list.

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