Coronavirus border curbs disrupt EU food supplies: industry

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Restrictions imposed by some European Union countries at their borders with other member states in response to the coronavirus outbreak are disrupting food supplies, representatives of the industry and farmers said on Thursday.

More than a dozen EU countries have tightened or even shut borders that are usually open and uncontrolled, in response to the spreading epidemic.

Because of these measures, “delays and disruption at country borders have been observed for the delivery of certain agricultural and manufactured products, as well as packaging materials,” said a statement signed by trade associations representing EU farmers, food traders and the European food and drink industry.

They also warned of potential labour shortages in the food industry as the sector relies on workers moving across the bloc.

To try to avoid shortages of essential goods, food and medicines, EU leaders endorsed a proposal from the European Commission, the EU executive, on Tuesday to establish fast-track lanes at their countries’ frontiers, but they did not agree to keep internal borders open.

The industry said that was not enough.

“We welcome the recent Commission guidelines on border management as a good first step. Despite these guidelines, however, we continue to face severe disruptions,” they said.

They urged EU countries and institutions to prepare contingency plans for possible shortages of workers.

“Given that the agri-food supply chain is highly integrated and operating across borders, any blocks of supply and workers will inevitably disrupt business. Our ability to provide food for all will depend on the preservation of the EU Single Market,” the statement said.

It called for the launch of fast-track lanes at border crossings that many states have not yet properly established.

“We will continue to try to ensure that these are established, functional and that we alleviate any issue that arises with regard to the distribution and transit of products, in particular with food products and medical products,” a spokesman for the European Commission said on Thursday.

The joint industry statement was signed by FoodDrinkEurope, the trading body for the European food manufacturing industry, Copa and Cogeca, which represents farmers, and CELCAA, the EU umbrella association for trading companies in the food and commodities sectors.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Barbara Lewis and Mark Heinrich