A trade on the brink Dunkirk spirit came to the fore as food retailers felt the strangleholds both of fuel tax protestors and panicking shoppers. The Grocer team reports on the grimmest week for the trade since the 1970s ­ and on the legacy for the weeks ahead Major links in the food distribution chain were within 24 hours of total paralysis when the fuel tax protestors began to dismantle their barricades on Thursday. Supplies of key items, including bread, dairy products, meat and fresh produce ­ already hit by countrywide outbreaks of panic buying by consumers ­ would have come to a halt by this weekend, it emerged as The Grocer went to press. And although pickets were abandoning their protests as we went to press distributors warned that the food chain wasn't "out of the woods yet." Agriculture minister Nick Brown was warned of the seriousness of the crisis when he met industry leaders in London. As one major multiple md put it: "There is a Dunkirk spirit of co-operation among us all. But although the blockades are ending, it will be several days before normal supplies are restored across the food chain. It all depends upon how quickly we get replenished supplies of fuel." Federation of Bakers director John White said: "Although fuel is beginning to get through, the supply chain is still fragile. Any excess demand for bread will result in shortages. We're urging shoppers not to panic buy." IGD, which had earlier set up a "mission control centre" at its Hertfordshire headquarters to identify trouble spots in the distribution chain, fed continuous situation reports to MAFF throughout the blockades. And this continued on Thursday as the protestors headed home. A spokesperson commented: "Just-in-time policies mean the supply chain is soon affected by panic buying. But we've learned a lot from this experience. The priority now is to replenish supplies in the areas hardest hit." In addition to the major retail chains, representatives of leading industry organisat- ions including the Dairy Industry Federation were at the minister's crisis meeting where it is understood much of the discussion centred on mounting supply problems. The top retailers warned that the panic buying was putting an "unprecedented" strain on distributors and contingency plans were needed to prioritise fuel for essential suppliers and carriers. Afterwards a MAFF spokesman praised the grocery sector for its "considerable willingness to work together to share resources and facilities to keep things moving". Panic buying began as early as Monday evening. And although staples such as bread and milk were high on the consumers' hit list, other items like canned fish and bottled water were soon cleared from the shelves. Safeway, Somerfield and Tesco said that distribution systems were creaking under the strain of sales which shot up as the crisis began to bite. Rationing had been introduced in Safeway and Somerfield to curb customers who were panic buying. And Tesco upped its allocations as sales volumes hit Saturday highs. Somerfield said demand midweek was similar to Christmas Eve. It put up notices urging customers to moderate their shopping. And it was limiting customers to three fresh items and six ambient in each sale. Tesco said on Wednesday it had enough fuel for distribution into next week, although all its petrol stations had remained closed since the blockades started. It was in the unique position of being able to give fuel to those of its suppliers who had run out. Waitrose had temporarily suspended its online shopping service as the fuel crisis deepened. Rather than operate a "substandard service" with certain goods unavailable and carriers unable to deliver goods, the multiple decided to take its net home delivery service offline, said a spokeswoman. Customers could still order wine from Waitrose Direct, but organics, flowers and other gifts were no longer available. However, it was business as usual elsewhere at Waitrose. "While we are obviously monitoring the situation, we are able to service all of our branches for the foreseeable future," she said on Thursday. FWD director Alan Toft said cash and carries enjoyed one of their best trading days ever on Tuesday as many additional symbol group retailers scoured the racks for extra supplies. He added: "The situation for all wholesalers had become critical. We began talks with the DTI to discuss ways of prioritising supplies to our members in order to keep products rolling into independent stores." One argument used by the wholesalers was that local, neighbourhood stores should receive priority over the larger multiples as they would be needed by consumers who were unable to drive to the big units due to dwindling supplies of petrol. Independent retailers saw a surge in business earlier this week, but as The Grocer went to press Nisa-Today's said: "As things stand we will be delivering to members up to and including Friday. Going forward we will have to be flexible in terms of the ongoing fuel situation." P&H McLane said the picture varied from depot to depot and it was closely monitoring the situation. First evidence of major disruption in the meat industry had emerged on Wednesday, when pigmeat processing sector leader Malton Foods announced it was halving its slaughter rate and reducing imported raw material intake. This put further pressure on an already stricken sector. British pork and bacon processors and their farmer suppliers are having to cope with official restrictions on the movement of pigs, measures aimed at eradicating an epidemic of swine fever, and generally tight supplies due to herd contraction triggered by the 1998-99 price collapse. Although farmers had joined hauliers on the picket lines, a continuing blockade would have hit farming hard. Long-term fuel problems would have disrupted harvesting, prevented vital animal feed reaching farms and stopped producers transporting products to customers. An NFU official said on Thursday: "While it's easy to understand the protests, we were deeply concerned that if the problems continued it would have meant more financial headaches for farmers." However, raw milk supplies to dairies were maintained at generally normal levels through the seven day blockade. On Thursday, Southern Milk Marque triplet body Milk Link said it was hoping to see substantial fuel deliveries over the weekend and was seeking priority supplies for its milk tankers. On Thursday afternoon, as more demonstrators abandoned the picket lines, hopes were rising among major distributors that empty shelves could be soon be refilled. While the oil companies said it could be "several weeks" before petrol supplies were back to normal, the food industry was hoping that its recovery would be a lot quicker. - See Opinion, page 18. {{NEWS }}