Five threats to US food supply chains

The coronavirus pandemic has upended food supply chains, led to closures of meat producing plants and left Americans with the unsettling experience of seeing empty shelves at supermarkets.

Coupled with the run on toilet paper that led to severe shortages, recent events are leading Americans to wonder if the nation's food supply is secure.

Experts say that by and large, Americans don’t need to worry about food running out, but that does not mean all food will be readily available.

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“I think we have a strong food supply system, and it’s diversified enough to provide the products to consumers,” said Olga Isengildina Massa, an associate professor of agriculture and applied economics at Virginia Tech.

“Obviously it has a lot of hiccups right now, but we’re working through the system,” she added.

Here are five of the major challenges facing food supply chains.

Virus outbreaks at food plants

One vulnerable spot in the nation's foods supply chains is processing plants, where workers often stand in close quarters as they prepare food to be delivered to grocery stores and wholesale customers.

The close proximity has increased the risk of outbreaks in the plants.

Last week, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, shut down a pork processing plant that accounts for up to 5 percent of production after more than 500 of its workers were infected. One worker has died from COVID-19.

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Other processors, including Tysons Food, Cargill and JBS, have also been forced to close plants after workers got sick.

Tysons Foods on Monday partially reopened a plant it closed down after two employees died of COVID-19 and 148 others tested positive for the virus.

“The packing plants are larger and more concentrated, and that’s where the issue is. If a lot of them shut down at once, there could be a serious disruption," said Massa.

“But so far we’re seeing them staggered,” she added.

Agricultural reliance on guest workers

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE announced Monday that he would “suspend immigration” but is reportedly not planning to include guest worker programs in the ban.

One likely reason is that America’s agricultural sector depends heavily on foreign workers to pick crops. Last year, nearly 250,000 foreign workers were employed in American agriculture.

The pandemic and some of the policies surrounding it could be a problem for farmers and their workers.

“I’ve marveled at how well the produce section is stocked, but I’m hearing that problems are coming because of immigration problems,” said Connie Weaver, an emeritus professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.

For example, Trump has reportedly looked at policies that would cut payments to seasonal guest workers, which might deter people from traveling to the U.S. to pick fruits and vegetables.

Travel delays are making it harder to fill spots, as are delays processing work visas.

And while many farms are ensuring workers remain a good distance apart at work, it's exceedingly common for migrant workers to bunk together in cramped living spaces, increasing the chance of an outbreak.

Supply chain mismatches

Even as some grocery store aisles are empty and food banks clamor for donations, some agricultural businesses are resorting to spilling or throwing away huge quantities of food.

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Some $5 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables have already gone to waste, according to the Produce Marketing Association, an industry trade group. Some dairies have been pouring thousands of gallons of milk down the drain.

The reason is that the country's supply chains are set for normal times, when people get a significant amount of food from restaurants and many kids eat lunch and drink a carton of milk at school.

Those supply chains are struggling to adapt to the lockdown reality in which most Americans are confined to home. 

Grocery stores don’t have relationships with wholesale producers, which in turn do not have the facilities for packaging and selling food in a way people are used to seeing it on shelves.

The 50-pound bags of flour that mills sell to large bakeries, for example, are of little use to people buying for a family of four.

Some entrepreneurial businesses are adapting. Chains such as Panera and Subway are repackaging flour into smaller containers and selling them to customers.

“Ultimately, the industry just has to learn to do the things it has to do,” said Don Schaffner, a food science specialist at Rutgers University.

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“We’re all just sort of muddling through and trying to make the best decisions we can.”

People cooking more of their own meals may also be straining the system in new ways. People who eat out regularly could be used to a diet of sushi, tacos, pizza, hamburgers and pad thai. But those same people are likely to resort to different meals with different ingredients when they’re cooking for themselves.

The trend is more extreme in some sectors, according to Weaver.

“Some people have forgotten how to prepare meals,” she said.

“Some people have moved so far away that they’re not familiar with the kitchen or may not really have a kitchen with the equipment they’d need,” she added.

Increased food insecurity

Even before the pandemic began, 37 million people were considered food insecure, according to Monica Hake, a senior research manager at Feeding America, a hunger-prevention group.

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The economic downturn from the coronavirus is only set to make that number rise.

In late March, Hake projected that a 7.6-point rise in the unemployment rate would increase the number of food-insecure people by 17.1 million.

So far, more than 20 million people have applied for unemployment, which economists say translates to a roughly 15 percent unemployment rate, up 11.5 points from before the pandemic.

Democrats pushed to expand nutrition assistance in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that was signed into law last month, which could help.

But with most schools closed through the end of the year, children who often rely on school meals face particular challenges.

Crunch on delivery capacity

As more and more cities have locked down, the problem of how to get food into people’s homes has grown.

People practicing stringent social distancing have resorted to grocery deliveries, leaving delivery services strapped for workers.

Grocery stores have had to implement new cleaning and social distancing guidelines and in many places are limiting the number of shoppers allowed in at a time. They require customers to wait in lines outside, six feet apart, and wear face masks in the stores.

That’s taken a tough toll on the grocery store workers, whom states such as Minnesota have deemed essential.

Delivery people and grocery store workers alike face increased risks of getting sick. Given the low pay and benefits often associated with the work, an uptick in COVID-19 cases among workers could make the positions harder to fill.

“What I want to make sure that we do is keep our essential workers that are part of the food supply safe, so they can continue working in agriculture, in packing houses, in grocery stores,” said Schaffner.

“That’s one of the things that are helping us hold it all together,” he added.