Power outages: How resilient is the food sector?

Martin FreerAfter hearing a sobering assessment of the UK’s energy security — and the looming energy gap — by Professor Martin Freer way back in January 2012, I wrote the gist of his argument as ‘expect a change in the Climate Change Act 2008 sometime around 2015’ in a blogpost entitled Will the lights go out?

Listening to the news today, his assessment of the energy gap seems prescient. Add in the Government’s assessment of power outages as a “high priority risk” (see this blogpost on HMG’s sector resilience plans) and it might well be that the lights go out for one reason or another.

What are the threats to food supplies into a large conurbation if energy supplies are cut in key locations for more than a few days? And/or if there are regular perhaps unpredictable outages? Indeed, where are those key locations?

At the recent CIEH Conference, I heard Peter Mather, Sainsbury’s Food Safety Manager talk of an event that had really tested their business resilience.

The event? A small fire in a fridge unit on a truck at a distribution centre . . . that couldn’t be contained by extinguishers.

Within minutes both the fire brigade and the Sainsbury serious incident committee in place. What unfurled over the next few hours, days even weeks was a truly impressive example of adaptation after an emergency. I doubt few if any customers had a clue about it, despite the fact that there were no deliveries to 153 stores the following day.

Yet this small fire in south-east London rapidly had huge impact on much of Sainbury’s food supply network in the UK. Not only were the contents of the affected centre unfit for human consumption through smoke pollution, the power system was cut off. Once the fire was dealt with, emergency generators stepped in.

Other local distribution centres stepped in to keep London’s supermarkets full. But that had knock-on implications for normal supplies. An ever-wider group of distribution centres became involved as far away from the original fire as Birmingham and North Yorkshire.

Unanticipated challenges arose quickly as, for example, delays in the logistics system being created because truck drivers far from home got lost in the streets in unfamiliar cities.

Sainsbury’s response was a demonstration of a hugely efficient complex adaptive system . . . with very little redundancy in it. Our just-in-time food supply network is efficient, sure. Close to capacity. But robust? Robust systems have redundancies . . .

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For Martin Freer’s 2012 presentation see here. Peter Mather’s presentation Business Continuity Planning — A case study can be downloaded from the CIEH website here.

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The Birmingham Food Council is a Community Interest Company registered in England and Wales number 8931789