With attacks in the Red Sea now in their fourth month, global supply chains are grappling with delays, disruption and additional cost. But what exactly is the impact for food and drink? And how can businesses mitigate the risks?   

On November 19, 2023, Houthi militants launched an assault on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship as it passed through the southern Red Sea, seizing its crew and redirecting the ship toward Hodeidah port in Yemen.  

It was the first of a series of attacks by the Iranian-backed rebels, with 29 more commercial ships targeted in the months since, in what is thought to be a response to conflict elsewhere in the Middle East 

The knock-on effect for global trade has been significant, with some 12% of all container vessels passing through the Red Sea. Within weeks four out of five of the world’s largest shipper container companies had suspended routes through the stricken area, adding time, cost and complexity to international supply chains.  

For food and drink it’s clear from previous disruption in the area that the impact stands to be substantial. Three years ago, in March 2021, the Suez Canal – the waterway that connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea – was blocked for six days when a container ship became wedged in the southern portion of the canal. The ensuing bottleneck wreaked havoc. Coffee suppliers sourcing from Asia and Africa were forced to temporarily suspend products, toilet paper manufacturers grappled with a shortage of wood pulp and Indian spice exporters complained of severe delays 

The 2021 crisis lasted less than a week, while current disruption in the Red Sea has already lasted several months. So, what challenges might food and drink face as a result of this latest shock to global supply chains? And how can they best respond?

Evaluating the global impact 

The initial impact for food and drink has been a delay to existing shipments, with suppliers in East Africa and southern and eastern Asia most affected due to their reliance on exports to Europe and the US, a route which passes through the Red Sea.  

Container vessels on this route have largely been rediverted around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, a 4,000-mile diversion taking an additional 10 days on average per ship. Food exports from Asia to Europe have faced delays of some three weeks as a result, and additional freight costs of up to $4,000 per container. Shipments of tea and spices have all been impacted. Delays to deliveries of palm oil from Asia to southern Europe has slowed production of higher value foods, while fresh produce facing delays of up to 20 days has led to high levels of spoilage

There are concerns that the additional cost and complexity for exporters in these regions will also see contracts revaluated. It’s thought that Indian businesses may lose billions as a result of the impact on Basmati rice supplies, for example. The country is the world’s largest rice exporter, shipping more than 4.5 million tonnes annually, 35% of which passes through the Red Sea. But since the disruption, not only is some inventory stuck at ports or processing units, but a fivefold increase in freight costs has dampened demand from traditional buyers in the Middle East, US and Europe. The crisis could cost the country more than $30bn in lost exports, experts have speculated. 

And just last week, the British Retail Consortium issued a warning around the impact on the black team market calling it a “temporary disruption”, although flavoured varieties could experience delays. The UK is the world’s fifth largest tea exporter, importing from Kenya and India to process and package the products before exporting them. 

Marco Forgione, Director General of the Institute of Export and International Trade, said tea may be "the first of many items caught up in this supply chain crisis". 

The rest of Europe, the USA and Latin America haven’t emerged from the crisis unscathed either. A number of US food manufacturers either sourcing from or exporting to Asia and Africa have also been affected by delays. These include Maryland-based supplier McCormick & Co, who import spices from India and Indonesia and protein manufacturer Tyson Foods, which supplies significant volumes of its pork to China. Latin American protein companies such as JBS, Marfrig and Minerva Foods, have faced similar challenges.    

Retailers in these markets too have grappled with the higher landed cost of goods, which have compounded the inflationary pressures that have been driving up food prices in these regions for the last two years. Further cost increases for end consumers in these markets are thought to be ‘inevitable.’   

Ken Murphy, the CEO of leading UK grocery retailer Tesco, told reporters in January that “If they [cargo ships] do have to go the whole way around Africa to get to Europe, it extends shipping times, it constrains shipping space and it drives up shipping costs.” Adding, “So that could drive inflation on some items.” 

Crafting more resilient supply chains 

In the short-term, food and drink businesses can take steps to safeguard existing inventory impacted by disruption in the Red Sea.  

Supplier advice: work with freight forwarders to temporarily transition to alternative modes of freight 

Be aware of added cost here though, with the price of air freight 16.7 times higher than sea as of 2023. For higher value goods or short-shelf produce this additional cost may be a calculated loss, particularly where high volume contractual arrangements could be at risk.   

Retailers & manufacturer advice: seek out alternative suppliers to prevent gaps in availability for end consumers 

Supermarkets already have a track record in quickly adapting their sourcing in this way. When poor weather impacted supplies of lettuce from Spain and Morocco in 2023, leaving shelves bare and some European consumers facing rationed purchases, many retailers increased orders from alternative exporters in Italy and the Netherlands.  

French dairy brand Danone is already diverting shipments according to Reuters, with mitigation plans in place should the disruptions last longer than three months. This will mean opting for land or alternate sea routes to transport their goods.  

The Evolution of Traceability in Food and Drink

In the longer term...

The current crisis in the Red Sea should act as a further wake up call to businesses of the need to invest in creating more resilient global supply chains, with a ‘just in time’ model within food and drink that leaves the industry particularly vulnerable to sudden crises.  

There are already efforts to diversify supply chains as a way to combat this. European producers are utilising tech to extend the shelf life of fresh produce and export to a more diverse range of global markets. In the Middle East, an agreement between Etihad Cargo, Abu Dhabi airports and Abu Dhabi Food Hub will also see an ‘origin-to-destination perishables air corridor’ established to drive greater diversity and set up new trade routes for the region’s exporters.   

This diversification needs to be paired with more sophisticated scenario planning tools. This includes software solutions and systems that enable food and drink firms to project the likelihood of future incidents and understand how to mitigate the impact before they’ve even happened. Leading operators like Tyson Foods have already deployed systems that centralise insights across their supply chain and allow for quicker decisions and greater efficiencies across supply planning, distribution and even food safety.  

With no end in sight to attacks in the Red Sea, food and drink companies will need to plan for ongoing disruption in the area, reviewing inventory management, supply routes and costs. But rather than limit action to reactive steps, they should use this as an opportunity to acknowledge the fragility of global food supply chains and take more proactive steps to prepare for the next inevitable crisis.    

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