Belgians are being urged to eat more of the country’s traditional ‘frites’ to help cut a 750,000-tonne potato surplus © Stephanie Lecocq/EPA

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

Belgians have been asked to eat more fries, the British are being urged to tuck into steak and the French have been pressed to up their cheese intake. The unusual pleas come not because people need comfort food as the coronavirus pandemic rages, but to help clear a glut of produce languishing in storage as the crisis shuts restaurants, hotels and workplace eateries across Europe.

With customers on lockdown, the continent’s farmers and food producers are trying to persuade them to increase consumption of their products at home. In Belgium, the world’s largest exporter of frozen fries, trade association Belgapom is urging people to eat an extra portion a week to reduce its 750,000-tonne potato surplus. 

“The frite is an intangible cultural heritage. It is a tradition that [Belgians] have frites once a week. We are asking people to increase that moment of joy an extra time in the week,” said Romain Cools, Belgapom secretary-general. 

European farmers are facing the return of butter and beef mountains and wine and milk lakes — last seen during the period of overproduction in the early 1980s — as the coronavirus crisis devastates demand.

Across the continent, shelves are stacked with cheese that cannot be sold; cellars overflow with wine; dairy farmers are pouring surplus milk down the drain; and vegetables and herbs are being dumped.

European winemakers are facing an estimated 35 per cent fall in sales volumes and a 50 per cent decline in value during the lockdown, according to the CEEV, the region’s trade body.

In Italy alone, the country’s cellars hold 54m hectolitres of wine, equivalent to more than 7bn bottles or a year’s worth of sales, according to Dino Scanavino, president of the Italian farmers' confederation Cia-Agricoltori Italiani.

European winemakers face a 35 per cent fall in sales volumes and a 50 per cent decline in value during the lockdown © Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

In the UK, at least 2m litres of milk of the 35m a day produced was surplus and was being converted to more versatile and easily stored powder or thrown away, said Peter Alvis, chair of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF).

Meanwhile, the meat industry is building up a surplus of the more expensive cuts normally used by restaurants. In the UK, demand for minced beef has increased but the sector has problems with “carcass balance”, according to the National Beef Association, with the pricier cuts that make the whole animal profitable remaining unsold.

Like the Belgians, the UK industry is trying to shift consumption to home cooks, with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which represents farmers, launching a #steaknight social media campaign, enlisting chefs and growers to share their recipes and tips.

The sudden disappearance of demand from the food service sector is adding to the difficulties facing Europe’s farmers, who are already struggling with labour shortages that threaten to hit the next harvest even as they are hampering processing of existing produce, adding to the glut.

The meat industry is building up a surplus of the more expensive cuts normally used by restaurants © Ben Stansall/AFP

The food and agricultural sectors are calling for government and EU support. The wine industry, including the CEEV and national associations, have asked for aid from the bloc to help producers distil the surplus into pure alcohol that could be used in sanitisers.

Mr Scanavino is lobbying Rome and Brussels for aid for Italy’s agricultural sector, and has launched a #noinonciarrendiamo — “no surrender” — campaign over the past few weeks to show that farmers “won’t give up”, he said. 

In France, the government has temporarily relaxed some of the strict rules for “Appellation d’Origine Protégée”, or “Protected Designation of Origin” cheeses to give producers more flexibility, for example over how long milk can be stored before it must be used and how cheese is aged and kept. The rules have been eased for 15 of the more than 40 AOP cheeses, according to the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, a state institution that governs the production of designated cheese and wines.

Meanwhile, the industry has launched a #Fromagisson campaign, calling on the French to do “what you can for cheese”. 

In the UK, the RABDF and National Farmers’ Union have called for targeted government support to enable dairy farmers to survive and so safeguard supplies once the pandemic is over. The current surplus will “give the industry a hangover for a long period of time”, said Mr Alvis. 

The European Commission has so far announced two packages to support the EU’s agriculture sector, with measures including suspension of competition rules and a pledge of €80m to help farmers store products for two to six months to help rebalance the markets.

But finding storage space is increasingly difficult. The UK’s industry group for cold storage warehousing has warned that the country will run out within days as warehouses are filled with perishable food stocks.

Mike McClendon, president of international operations for US company Lineage Logistics, the world’s largest cold storage supplier, said that about 95 per cent of chilled and frozen storage in Europe was full. “We’re seeing a large demand for [storage of] potatoes, ice cream, beef, chicken and pork,” he said.

For farmers who have tended fields and livestock for years, the overnight disappearance of markets and the pile-up of produce has been devastating. Most agricultural operations could not adjust to sudden demand fluctuations, unlike industrial production lines, said industry bodies.

“The meat we are consuming this week started production three years ago or more,” said the UK’s national beef association. “Beef production cannot be turned on and off like a tap.”

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris

Get alerts on Food security when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article