By Vincent McDonagh
THE Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation has issued a Covid-19 information update and more useful advice through a series of questions and answers from its chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird. They show that despite the obvious challenges thrown up by the crisis the industry is managing to steer a steady, if difficult, course in the most difficult of circumstances.
Q. How are Scottish salmon farmers managing to get their produce ready to go to market?
A. “Public health and keeping our workforce safe, whether that’s on farms or in the processing factories, are our absolute priorities, but we are also working hard to sustain a supply of fresh salmon moving to the supermarkets across the UK.
“Salmon farming companies are changing the way they work to respect social distancing rules. The workforce has been scaled back and new rota systems, based on minimum staff to cover core activities, mean that start and finish times are staggered to ensure that social distancing is in place.
“In processing plants, screens have been erected to shield workers and maintain a safe distance apart. Protective equipment and additional hygiene measures are in place from extra hand sanitisers to advising that work clothes are washed on-site.”
Q. Is the sector experiencing staff shortages as a result of the coronavirus crisis?
A. “There are some absences due to self-isolation but as most companies have pared back their workforce to manage social distancing, staff shortages are not currently an issue. This may change as the virus continues to spread.”
Q. What impact have restaurant closures had on demand for fresh produce?
A. “As the restaurants are closed, the market has shifted to retail sales. It’s important that consumers can continue to easily buy healthy, nutritious food through this period.
“Along with many other Scottish foods, salmon is simple to cook and packed with vitamins, protein and essential Omega-3 fatty acids which are vital for good health whatever age you are.”
Q. Is any salmon going to waste because of the current situation?
A. “Nothing is going to waste. The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation have been working with regulators SEPA and Marine Scotland to agree on temporary flexibility so that the fish can stay in the water longer to manage any disruption in the markets.
“This has been very helpful but the situation will be monitored as the outbreak continues. Salmon freezes well too at home and at retail so there are options there too.”
Q. Are there any problems with distribution and do you anticipate any long-term impacts of the health of the sector?
A. “Currently distribution within the UK is fairly smooth. However, exports of Scottish salmon have been significantly hit because of the reduction of scheduled international flights and the closure of some European fish markets.
“As salmon is Scotland’s and the UK’s largest food export, this is a challenge but we are exploring other ways to deliver salmon to far flung markets depending on how the Covid19 situation develops. We are talking to the Scottish Government about how they might be able to help with this.”
“Scottish salmon is exported to over 50 countries and attracts a premium because of its quality and provenance. While this disruption is worrying, we have a strong market reputation and will need to work hard when exports return to normal to secure that premium position.”
Q. What can the government and the public do to help?
A. “All those working in salmon farming or supplying essential materials to the farms and processing plants are doing a fantastic job in keeping the supply of fresh salmon on the way to supermarkets.
“However, we are working with the Scottish Government to make sure everyone in the country knows how vital food production is and how important it is for all workers – including those in the supply chain – get to work with the full support of their communities.
“Eating behaviours are changing in response to the Covid pandemic and consumers are thinking more carefully about where their food comes from. The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation is working with other food and drink organisations which represent the wealth of great Scottish products to help the public to buy local, to buy Scottish.”