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How is the Dairy Industry Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis?

As the COVID-19 pandemic grows, dairy co-operatives across Europe have taken a number of measures to cope with the crisis.

Despite the “shutdown situation” in large parts of the Union and the increasing raw milk volumes, so far milk and dairy operations are running without major disturbance.

Italy, the epicentre of the European crisis, is the exception to this. The north of the region is most affected by the virus outbreak and this is also the country’s dairy basin. Firstly, as a result of a significant drop off in export demand, followed by the closure of the food service industry in Italy and then Europe, dairies started asking farmers to roll back on their production to accommodate the lack of demand. As labour shortages are now beginning to squeeze the industry, with workers in processing facilities falling ill or in self-isolation, this request is becoming more and more urgent, with certain processors communicating their concern that they will soon not be able to collect milk at all and a number of small private processors already been forced to close.

Italy is also an important buyer of raw milk from countries such as Germany and Slovenia. However new border restrictions have also resulted in this milk being unable to reach its processor and these countries are dealing with considerable levels of surplus raw product.

For dairies across the rest of Europe, preparedness is the main focus:

  • Co-operatives are continuing to tighten up the already strict hygiene procedures. This includes an intensive sanitisation of employees and access barriers for production areas and co-operative premises. Many dairies have introduced mandatory temperature checks of employees as well as all other people entering the processing facility sites. These tighter rules are intended to prevent employees from falling ill and possible plant closures as a result.
  • Strict no-contact measures are being implemented by milk collectors on farms, with no physical contact permitted and a distance of 2 meters to be observed.
  • Dairies are in the process of selecting and training a “B team” for all their essential processing operations. In many cases is it management staff or other non-technical personal which are being drafted in for this task. This “B team” would then be on call in the event key personal fall ill or are required to isolate.
  • Dairies are sourcing, where possible, additional protective clothing and materials for their staff, such as masks and gloves. In many countries, such as Slovenia and Spain a lack of these protective instruments has led to logistical staff refusing to work, out of fear of exposure.
  • Securing the continued supply of imports, in particular feed, is a key priority. Trade disruptions, in both long distance and local haulage has created some alarm in certain countries, such as Italy. These disruptions are due to internal EU border restrictions, hauliers refusing to entre certain areas and restrictions imposed in third countries requiring a period of quarantine, before allowing hauliers to return to Europe.
  • Operations are also responding to the change in demand, which thanks to the closure of the food service industry, has shifted from the bulk consumer segment to the food retail sector, in particular to UHT products. Although this demand is expected to be short-lived.

Alison Graham – European Affairs Executive