IT WAS a moment in time when Scotland was in the grip of a wave of panic buying amid unfounded fears of widespread food shortages and images of empty shelves.

As the country went into lockdown under the weight of a deadly pandemic through which it has only started to navigate the focus was drawn to the supermarkets, the principle source of staples.

They and their suppliers had to work deftly to keep the shelves stocked and the country nourished, says David Thomson, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation Scotland.

However, while some food manufacturers were increasing production, others whose main focus is in areas such as hospitality were closed down.

In the country’s supermarkets, some items such as hand sanitiser, understandably, and toilet roll, inexplicably, became scarce but there were also other lines where availability did not reach 100 per cent, he accepts.

Mr Thomson added, however, “when it became apparent that there weren’t going to be food shortages, the panic buying stopped immediately”.

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The industry-funded trade association represents food and drink manufacturers including major global brands and small and medium-sized enterprises, such as Britvic, Premier Foods, sausage skin maker Devro, Macsween Haggis and Baxters.

He says the sector has been “working to make sure that food’s on the table”.

Large parts of the food and drink industry, however, had their customer chain cut overnight, some are still out of operation, and others may not come back.

He said: “It’s a tale of two different types of business.

“The first business is the one that’s supplied into the retail market, so into supermarkets and others over the course of the crisis, and those businesses had obviously the initial panic buying period, which really required them to be at the top of their game to adjust to what people were buying, to make sure that the stocks were there for businesses to supply supermarkets and to really make sure that people got the food that they wanted to buy.

“Those first two to three weeks where we all saw the panic buying, which was really just people buying one more thing than they would normally buy. So instead of buying one of something, they would buy two or see people buying 20 of something.

“Any backlog of stocks they had were quickly taken up by supermarkets and others.

“Since then, it’s only in the last month that retail sales have gone up above last year. So following the panic buying period, the retail sales were lower year on year than in 2019.

“They had a huge jump and then after that, they’ve been dealing with actually a bit of a down turn in demand until the last month or so.”

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He said the food industry was one of the first to have to continue to manufacture and bring in social distancing.

The activity in that area of the sector stands stark against the inactivity of other parts.

Mr Thomson said: “It’s a big contrast to those who’ve been supplying the food service and hospitality markets.

“All of that has had a hugely significant impact on those businesses and we haven’t really seen the shocks of that yet.

“So it’s about how to keep operating in particular when your costs are very high at the moment, but you’re not necessarily seeing the return for them.”

He said: “I’ve got huge confidence in the long-term future of Scotland’s food and drink industry and its growth. But I think at this particular point in time, when the cashflow is an issue and you have to make broader predictions for what you’re going to be able to do over the next six months to a year, I think that there will be an element of restructuring in some businesses as we go forward, hopefully to make them stronger.”

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Also now looming again, the organisation’s main Brexit concern is about the future European trade deal “or otherwise” adding “anything that makes UK food exports more difficult is something that obviously will have an impact on businesses”.

“That means if it’s the tariffs to export, if it’s quotas to export, if it’s product checks, if it’s inspections, if it’s export health certificates.

“All these are additional things that we don’t currently have just now when we export to Europe and all of those add cost and time to businesses and make it harder to export to Europe.

“A trade deal that deals with as many of these things as possible is going to be critical.”

He also said: “We’re losing the ability to take workers from across Europe and that’s changing with the new migration rules.

“That’s likely to mean that there will be a change in the way that businesses work, because they’re going to have to get more productive or maybe use less people in order to do what they’re going to do, because they won’t have access to the labour pool from across the European Union.

“What we don’t yet know about that though is the impact of Covid.”

READ MORE: Scottish stores change opening times as coronavirus stockpilers hit shelves


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

The place I always want to return to is Rome.

I love the history, the art, the atmosphere ... and pasta.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

My primary school class was once on local radio and I said I wanted to be an astronaut, to much derision. I am not sure if I have changed my mind yet, though I would probably be too scared.

What was your biggest break in business? 

In the civil service. I worked for the Scottish Government and was moved to head up the food and drink division. I haven’t looked back since.

What was your worst moment in business? 

The last few months of Covid-19 have certainly been challenging, but on a personal level I would point to the horse meat scandal of 2013 as being the most difficult time for me. I was responsible for getting facts from business to Scottish ministers to allow them to brief the Scottish Parliament and the media about what was going on. At the time it seemed relentless and never-ending, but in the long run the crisis has made the industry more resilient.

Who do you most admire and why?

I try not to admire people I don’t know  so I have to say my mother, who brought us up very well.

What book are you reading, what was the last film you saw and what music are you listening to?

I read many books at once, but I would pick out Luna by Ian McDonald, Noel Malcolm’s Agents Of Empire and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine.

For my film: It was Will Ferrell’s Eurovision on Netflix. Loved it!

The playlist is normally set by my older son, but you can’t beat a bit of Weezer or Talking Heads if I get the chance.