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Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses of Britain's food supply system. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ray Tang/Shutterstock

From humble grocers to de-facto ministry: How supermarkets took over Britain’s food system

As shelves emptied at unprecedented rates in March, the “big four”—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons—banded together to act. But is it sensible to leave the fate of Britain's food system to the vicissitudes of the market?

By Dan Hancox   June 2020

It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was the first week of March. I still recall my shock, seeing the long shelves of my nearest hypermarket-sized Sainsbury’s empty of pasta. At first I assumed they were re-organising the aisles, or something equally mundane—until I overheard a conversation between two customers about “stockpiling.” The realisation dawned slowly—this is really happening.

Within days, many of us were doing a bit of panic buying, although we told ourselves we weren’t panicking, just buying. As the Covid-19 clouds gathered and darkened through the middle of March, I cycled between the largest supermarkets in south London to see which stocks were the first to go. To begin with, it was the store-cupboard staples disappearing—pasta, rice, pulses, tins of tomatoes—and then, a kind of retro-wartime rationing kit: flour, vegetable oil, eggs, tinned fish, tinned fruit, tea and coffee. As lockdown finally neared, fresh…

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