The closure of fish and chip shops due to coronavirus has left thousands of tonnes of potatoes languishing in storage – threatening to put farmers out of business.
Although government guidelines allow takeaway food outlets to remain open, 80-90% of fish and chip shops are said to have closed their doors.
The decision has seen a slump in demand for chipping potatoes.
Based in Cambridgeshire, potato merchants Abbey Produce usually supplies about 30,000t of potatoes into the chip shop trade every year.
But sales director Duncan Negus told Farmers Weekly his company hadn’t been able to sell a single potato for more than a week.
Mr Negus said he understood the reasons why fish and chip shops had closed.
This included queues outside shops and government guidelines on social distancing – with police moving people on if necessary.
But he added: “This means that growers who hold stocks for chip shops are left high and dry – potatoes are a perishable commodity with a finite time to move.”
Mr Negus said he had spoken to processors in a bid to move potatoes, but they were adequately covered because many other fast-food outlets were also shut.
Supermarket chains were also adequately supplied, he said.
“Farmers in this sector lay out vast sums of money up to 18 months in advance to crop – and if they receive no help, they will go under.”
In its latest Potato Weekly report, the AHDB said chipping markets had largely stalled due to the coronavirus lockdown.
“There are reports of chip shops cancelling orders due to closures, although some are operating in a small capacity through delivery services,” said analyst Alex Cook.
“Due to this, demand for chipping supplies [is] expected to remain suppressed until the government restrictions are lifted.”
Some growers and merchants were selling chipping stock as ware to help meet local demand – including in 25kg bags to farm shops.
“With an increasing number of consumers having turned to farm shops, it is hoped that an increasing number will return to farm shops once the pandemic has been resolved.”
The National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF), which represents some 10,000 fish and chip shops, said it had reluctantly advised its members to close their doors.
NFFF president Andrew Crook said: “Without help marshalling queues and with government guidelines, we cannot guarantee the safety of our employees and the general public.”
Some businesses were operating delivery services if they could do so safely and within government guidelines, said Mr Crook.
Each shop was able to feed thousands of people with a nutritious meal, and would be willing to reopen if needed to provide any assistance in a humanitarian capacity.
“We will reassess this advice on a weekly basis,” said Mr Crook.
“This is an awful situation for all. We will get through this and fish and chips will live on.”