AFGC – keeping the shelves stocked

The AFGC’s acting CEO Dr Geoffrey Annison puts in perspective the role Australia’s food industry has had in the COVID-19 and the recovery of Australian businesses.

The year 2020 has certainly ushered Australia into uncertain times, and luckily for domestic consumers, the Australian food, grocery and beverage manufacturing sector was able to quickly jump into action to keep the shelves stocked.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia’s shores, the effects could be seen on supermarket shelves much longer than anticipated – the great toilet paper shortage will define that period in time. However, we saw a shortage of other staples such as disinfectant, handwash and soap, non-perishable food and cheaper protein options.
AFGC Acting CEO, Dr Geoffrey Annison, affirmed that for a population of around 25 million, there never should have been a panic. A statement voiced loud and clear by many advocates for calm.

“We make safe, nutritious food here and enough for 75 million people. We also value add to the raw commodities from our farms and sell that to the world. Our exports are worth nearly $35 billion with a strong import trade bringing in ingredients to add to the products we make here,” Annison said.

And indeed, in an open, pre-pandemic globalised world, this food would be exported without any issues, given Australia is known for its food safety and quality. During COVID-19 however, this meant the country’s capacity to get food to shelves was possible – but it was food, grocery and beverage manufacturers that were the quiet hero’s in making sure it was achieved.

Many factories were quick to switch operations into overdrive, with many businesses keeping the manufacturing open 24 hours, seven days a week. This meant more of the food people needed could reach supermarket shelves quicker than ever before. This sector was responsible for over 270, 000 jobs in cities and regional towns – jobs that were needed to keep vulnerable Australian’s safe while the economy was shutting down.

When there were issues with essential supplies into remote indigenous communities, the sector rallied together to understand the issues and ensure pre-allocation of products went directly to these communities.

The present
It is important that the recovery starts now. Companies must ask themselves: What did we learn? Where are the opportunities and where were our challenges? How do we make people understand how complex the process is and most importantly? How do we get to where we need to be for any future issues or even, the future needs in general?

The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced how strong and reliable Australia’s food and grocery supply chain is, and while there were some shortages initially, these have been minimal and mostly rectified swiftly. The AFGC is proud of how responsive and agile the sector is.
“Thank you to the companies, their staff and the logistics and supply chains for the great work they do in keeping the shelves stocked,” said Annison.

Members of parliament did come out and voice their support for the industry, particularly in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Victorian abattoir. The AFGC continually stated that COVID-19 cannot be transferred via food, but it certainly helped that the federal, state and territory agricultural ministers also spoke up.

The Hon Karen Andrews MP, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology addressed the National Press Club in Canberra on May 20th, 2020, voicing her support for the sector.
“It’s fair to say that over the last few months, our manufacturers have displayed incredible ingenuity, resilience and collaboration in meeting the difficult challenges of our COVID-19 response,” she said.

“They have proved themselves vital, not just in the production of personal protective equipment, but also our food and packaging manufacturers who have ramped up production to meet demand during this crisis.”

The future
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded and started to settle, governments began to talk about economic recovery and building resilience to future shocks. However, there has been little detail on how the government was intending develop the policies and initiatives required to achieve these objectives. Different industry sectors will undoubtedly be brought in to discuss in detail how the COVID-19 crisis was managed, what the particular vulnerabilities of businesses were revealed, and what the lessons are that can be taken forward to raise resilience to resist a future event, be it another wave of COVID-19 transmission, or some other natural disaster or challenge.

The AFGC is already part of the conversation with the government on the future of manufacturing in Australia. Advocating to ensure that the sector is viable into the future after 10 years of retail price deflation, now is the time to strengthen the sector, supply chains and ensure food security.

The food and grocery sector has already been described as strategically important. Since the COVID-19 crisis took hold in Australia, the AFGC has gathered information on its impact on the food and grocery sector from its members and continues to do so. This information will be invaluable in assisting the government to understand the sector and its supply chains and construct the policies necessary to support it as a strategically important sector. And the AFGC is now using this information in discussions about recovery and resilience.

“Manufacturing is alive and well in Australia and with the support from the Federal Government through either reducing red tape, short term incentives and allowances and helping business to navigate new markets, we have had the confidence and ability to remain strong during the COVID-19 crisis,” Annison said.

Having a strong, capable manufacturing sector, which can be agile and adaptable, has been vital during this pandemic. It is crucial that the country learns from this and continues to develop the sector into the future. The AFGC is using this experience and the lessons learned to work with government on how the organisation can shape the future of manufacturing in Australia, as well as continuing to grow and support the food, grocery and beverage sector over the next 10 years.
Capability exists in this country. What comes next is what and how the country challenges the status quo to ensure its grows and is prepared for what the future holds for all Australian’s, said Annison.

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