The center cannot hold: Coronavirus fractures food supply chain

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As dairy farmers dump milk they can’t sell and meat processing plants shut down for the foreseeable future, fears about the nation’s coronavirus food supply chain are growing.

The cascading, destructive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is upending the production and distribution of food. Factory workers are falling ill and sick drivers can’t distribute food. The closure of restaurants, office and school cafeterias has left farmers with fewer places to sell, leading some to dump their products.

While the food supply chain buckles under the strain of COVID-19, grocery stores struggle to keep certain shelves stocked and lines at local food banks grow longer by the day.

With port and border closures and aviation disruptions around the world, concerns about the food supply are at a global scale. Maximo Torero Cullen, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, warned of the risk in a March 29 paper.

A “protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more,” he wrote.

Cullen urged countries “to make every effort to keep the gears of their food supply chains moving.”

Plants closing, milk and crops dumped

The closure of one of the nation’s largest pork processing plants in Sioux Falls, S.D., earlier this week after about 240 employees became ill with COVID-19, highlights the growing breakdown in the food supply chain.

Plant workers, who work in tight quarters and are deemed essential, are at risk of contracting the disease. Some have already died.

With other meat plants closing due to the pandemic, the CEO of Smithfield, which owns the Sioux Falls plant, warned of a looming meat shortage.

“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers,” Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement.

While the pandemic forces meat plants to close, dairy farmers are dumping their milk and other farmers are plowing over their crops because they can’t get it to market.

Coronavirus food supply chain: Too much pressure

Experts say the nation isn’t running out of food, at least not yet. There’s plenty of meat, for example.

The problem revolves around distribution and the two separate food supply chains for consumers and commercial entities.

  1. With restaurants and schools closed, many growers and distributors have been forced to make a sudden shift from wholesale to retail markets, which presents a logistical and packaging nightmare for highly perishable products like meat, vegetables, and dairy.
  2. At the same time, truckers who bring products to market are either falling ill or staying at home because of COVID-19.

The long-term impact of COVID-19 on the food supply becomes more dire when you consider the people who work on farms and fields. As essential workers, they continue to labor, but are at risk.

According to a CNN report, workers and their union representatives are sounding the alarm about unsafe working conditions and the potential for outbreaks that could endanger the nation’s food supply. And with travel restrictions and border closing, there would be few workers to replace them.

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Marcia Savage

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