As food banks struggle to meet demand and grocery stores shelves sit empty, farmers around the world are watching their produce rot, flooding thousands of gallons of milk down the drain, and breaking eggs rather than allowing chicks to hatch.
About half of all food produced is ordinarily destined for now dormant restaurants, school cafeterias, hotels, stadiums, theme parks and cruise ships. As the COVID-19 era transforms the way people eat, the effect of this massive shift is a distressing imbalance in the food supply chain.
“The supply itself is not in question, but matching that supply with demand and getting it to where it’s needed most is a new and urgent problem,” writes Susie Cagle for The Guardian.
In recent years, consumers have become much more mindful of where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Although many companies have been boosting their transparency efforts in response, the pandemic is underscoring many lingering gaps. Efforts to find, produce, track and reroute inventories of urgently needed goods are proving to be seriously impaired by this lack of visibility.
Adding to the predicament is that preparing, packaging and shipping food for a theme park or hotel is very different from a food bank or grocery store. This is largely because of variations in packaging, sizes and labels. For example, a butter maker might have to convert from small, single-serve packets to sticks; or a poultry producer that doesn’t have enough workers to portion chickens may begin selling whole birds.
Likewise, redirecting industrial-scale goods “involves more than a phone call or quick email exchange,” Jennifer Smith notes in The Wall Street Journal. I spoke with Smith earlier this week and explained that resolving the discrepancies between industrial and consumer food supply will require significant investment in transparency and visibility, in addition to the associated production, warehousing and logistics costs.
At the same time, the increasing number of farm, processing plant, warehouse, logistics and grocery store workers becoming sick with coronavirus is further intensifying the problem. The outbreak at Smithfield Foods, for example, has affected 230 workers — more than half of the cases in the entire state of South Dakota. “Employees often work shoulder to shoulder, and some companies have granted sick leave only to employees who test positive for the coronavirus,” Michael Corkery and David Yaffe-Bellany write in The New York Times. “That potentially leaves on the job thousands of other infected workers who haven’t been tested.”
Karan Girotra, a supply chain expert at Cornell University warned the Times: “Labor is going to be the biggest thing that can break. If large numbers of people start getting sick in rural America, all bets are off.”
The tools you need to make an impact
The unfortunate reality is that our current food supply chains are not equipped, aligned or well-positioned enough to make critical modifications. But ASCM is working to address these challenges with essential education, training, resources and coronavirus content that is continually updated. We are collaborating daily with subject matter experts to develop relevant information on our COVID-19 Resources webpage, and numerous free webinars are being produced, including The Coronavirus Impact on Global Supply Chains, Planning Through Unimaginable Times and Doubling Down on Supply Chain Digital Capabilities.
Finally, be sure to visit ASCM’s LinkedIn and YouTube channels to see my weekly video chat, SCM This Week, with SCM Now Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Rennie. This Tuesday, she and I will delve deeper into the future of our food supply chains and how supply chain professionals like you can make a difference.