There’s a day of reckoning coming for farmers, Big Ag, and the food distribution system after the U.S. and world finally harness the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because the truth is that the U.S. wasn’t well prepared for the havoc the coronavirus has wrought on the nation's food supply chain, meat processing plants, warehouses, and grocery stores.
Here’s just a small sample:
- Farmers and destroying millions of pounds of fresh produce and milk that they can’t sell.
- Employees are dying from the virus at the nation’s meat packing plants while Smithfield Foods has shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota processing plant after roughly 300 workers have become ill with the virus. That number has grown in the last few days to more than 500 employees. The plant produces more than 5 percent of the nation’s pork.
- Smithfield isn’t alone. Cargill has shuttered a facility that process both beef and pork in Pennsylvania. Ditto for JBS, USA. And Tyson has suspended operations in an Iowa pork plant after some two dozen workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
- Meanwhile, in recent weeks a panicked public is buying groceries at a prodigious rate. Data firm Nielsen says the sale of rice is up 50 percent, canned meat is up 40 percent, and staples like peanut butter, bottled water, pasta, and beans have also seen spikes in purchasing.
- Kroger reports food demand is up some 30 percent; sales for all of 2019 was up slightly less than 2 percent. Meanwhile all those folk who keep the grocery stores up and running from stockers to checkout workers, to produce and meat managers, are at risk because they lack the correct face masks and other protective gear.
- The federal government as of April 6 finally recommending that the public wear face masks in public after dragging its feet for weeks but that ain’t happening in the grocery stores I frequent. As for those plastic shields popping up at checkout counters. Forget it. There’s plenty left to learn about the spread of small airborne viral particles.
- The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says as I write this in mid April about 1,550 of its 1.3 million members have been infected from the virus with 30 deaths.
Up until now all this madness hasn’t really impacted food supply at retail. Yes there have been temporarily empty shelves; where I shop there was a period of days when celery was impossible to come by.
But the U.S. has been lucky. When the virus began to surge in March and April, the nation’s wholesales cupboards were overflowing with staples including chicken, beef, soybeans and dairy as a result of the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. That has helped retailers to meet crushing demand.
As the virus continues wholesale shelves are becoming depleted. The food supply chain has been slow to repurpose food meant for the nation’s closed restaurants and hotels for home consumption.
And globally the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says it expects disruptions in food supply in April and May.
The U.S. must be nimble in the days ahead to respond to uncertainties in the food supply created by the coronavirus. Waste must be minimized.
Coordination between state and federal food experts will be essential. And someone needs to be keeping notes on everything.
We are far from out of the woods on food disruptions and food chain issues.
We’ll need a task force of our brightest agricultural minds to sort out how we can do better the next time.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.