Food supply chain affected, evolving with COVID | Farm

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of society, from who’s working to where people can go and how people can gather together.

Another aspect that has been affected is the food supply chain.

That was a big point of discussion Tuesday afternoon during the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food Summit, held over the online video service Zoom, that featured several national leaders, including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

“In modern America … people think about food coming from the grocery store,” Perdue said during the summit. “We had to broaden the understanding.”

He said there were two aspects of the national food supply chain that worked almost 50/50 with the supplies: roughly half went to food services like restaurants while the other half went to food retail, such as grocery stores.

He likened the situation with the pandemic to a four-lane highway that experienced an accident leading to two of the lanes being put out of commission and resulting in a traffic jam.

“The fact is, nobody could predict the problems we face,” Perdue said. “It’s the USDA’s role to be flexible and move very quickly in realigning those dislocations and misalignments we’ve had … Our motto is do right and feed everyone. This provided a huge challenge.”

To answer that challenge, he said federal officials launched programs that included waivers, loading more money onto the EBT payments for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and a program to have the federal government purchase food items from farmers for distribution to food pantries.

While the response may not have been perfect, Perdue said people worked hard to make sure people got the food they needed.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the agriculture industry was experiencing a “perfect storm” for some years, with the pandemic simply being the latest aspect of it.

For seven or eight years, agriculture has been a declining economy that has seen an increase in farm bankruptcies.

Farmers have also seen issues with the supply chain as processing plants are closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The processing part has really hit us in the face,” Duvall said. “Now we see what an important link it is in our food chain.”

Other concerns facing the agriculture industry are the closing of ethanol plants, the future of the Phase I trade deal with China and bringing younger people into the industry.

“No one really knows what the future holds and how this will have a permanent effect on the food chain,” Duvall said. “There will have to be a lot of talk in the pipeline that feeds protein into the processing plants.”

Meat and dairy processors started gearing up for the pandemic back in February, said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, a national trade association for meat processors.

“We began meeting weekly by telephone to share the best practices,” she said. “They were very proactive in the policies they put in place at their plants.”

These policies included additional sanitation, greater availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), screening employees and sending away people who were exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

Despite those precautions, Potts said there has been a “tremendous amount of COVID” within the workforce and officials are talking with government offices to get additional guidance as they deal with the situation.

Absenteeism from fear has been an issue, as is the general need for labor even before the pandemic, as processing is still a labor-intensive job.

“The labor situation, even before COVID, was tight,” Potts said, adding it was challenging to keep employees.

Looking ahead, the first priority would be with the workforce.

Another problem they faced was switching up the processing of service industry meat for retail service, a process which she said was slow.

“We’re going to need to do a lot of thinking together with our government as to how we become flexible in allowing that happen in a more smoothed-out basis,” she said.

Food retail has seen an unprecedented surge in demand, said Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which is a food industry association that works with and on behalf of the entire industry to advance a safer, healthier and more efficient consumer food supply chain.

“It’s been almost overwhelming,” she said.

Part of what they’ve done is realigned the supply, taking products destined for food service sector and redirecting it to the retail sector.

Overnight, she said they saw the numbers of online shoppers increase to levels they weren’t expecting to see for five years.

In-person grocery stores have also become social hubs, which comes with various health issues.

“In that, we had to serve as a model of safe distancing while people are in the stores,” Sarasin said. “We’ve done specific in-store social distancing markings that showed how far six feet is.”

Food retailers have also utilized special shopping hours for at-risk people and have established sneeze guards at checkouts among other measures.

Most of all, it has tested the mettle of retail employees.

“People who go to work in food retail and in other parts of the food distribution chain don’t have it in their job description to be a hero,” Sarasin said, adding that they have become one, anyway. “This demand for labor is something our stores have recognized.”

Looking forward, she said FMI is tracking shopping patterns.

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