Our Food Supply System Is Shaky, but It's Not Breaking, Say Experts

Meat and poultry shelves are nearly empty in a Maryland grocery store in mid-March. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, grocery store shelves were quickly stripped bare as people raced to stock up on supplies. In addition to toilet paper and cleaning products, it was exceedingly difficult to find chicken and meat, dairy products and many food staples. Now, several weeks later, most stores have restocked many of those basics. Depending on where and when you go, you might be able to find everything on your shopping list.

As most restaurants nationwide are closed for dine-in service and Americans are cooking most meals at home, the national food supply is under unusual stress. Experts say yes, it's facing many challenges, but it should be able to deal with them.

Pork facility shuts down

One of the largest pork processing facilities in the U.S. has closed until further notice because workers have become ill with COVID-19. Smithfield Foods announced on April 12 that it was closing its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant.

“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," said Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer, for Smithfield, in a statement. "These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals.”

The facility supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week — which represents about 4% to 5% of the country's pork production — and employs 3,700 people, according to Smithfield.

Smithfield employees account for more than half of the active coronavirus in the state, said South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem during a news briefing. About 240 employees are sick, she said, out of that state's roughly 430 active cases.

The problem isn't just at Smithfield. Meat processors have also shut down in Iowa and Pennsylvania because of sick employees, CNN reports.

Consumers aren't likely to see impacts of these closings right now, so there shouldn't be a rush to stock up on meat the grocery store. There's plenty of meat inventory, Christine McCracken, senior analyst of animal protein for Rabobank, tells CNN.

The number of closed plants represents a small part of the overall business. But if more plants close because of employee sickness, then things could change.

"The smart money would say that it will be an issue at more plants, we just hope they don't all overlap at the same time," she says. "If it expands to more plants it becomes a serious issue."

Some industry groups say the federal government must help protect essential workers, a group that includes food suppliers.

“In order for our industry to continue manufacturing, we must have access to the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary for our employees to do their jobs – or there is potential that facilities will be shut down,” Betsy Booren, senior vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), the industry trade group for grocery store products, tells The Hill. "The federal government must make PPE available for our industry so that major supply chain disruptions can be avoided."

Grocery workers on the front lines

cashier in supermarket wears mask and gloves
Lorena Martinez wears a mask and gloves as she works as a cashier at a supermarket in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When food makes it through to retail, grocery store workers are the key to making sure it's available to consumers. But stores are dealing with an increasing number of sick employees as well as those who are afraid to come to work.

“One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” analyst Phil Lempert tells The Washington Post. Some grocery store chains originally asked employees not to wear masks and gloves because they were afraid it would scare shoppers.

The Post reported that workers at Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Giant have died from the virus. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million grocery store, food processing and meat packing employees, told The New York Times that as of April 13, at least 1,500 of its members had been infected with the coronavirus and 30 of them had died.

Workers have constant exposure to each other and to customers who may be infected. Many must find their own protective gear, even though the government deems them essential workers who must report to work.

That pressure has led to new calls for their protection. Kroger and Albertsons, America's two largest grocery chains, along with the union group UFCW, have appealed to federal and state officials to designate their employees as "emergency personnel." If workers gain that status, it would put them in line to receive safety equipment and testing, a means to keeping grocery stores safe and functioning.

Chicken prices fall

In the early days of the pandemic, it was hard to find chicken anywhere. Shoppers filled their carts with whatever they could find, leaving rows of emptiness where poultry should've been.

Now, grocery store meat cases are starting to fill up again, and chicken prices are dropping. Restaurants have stopped buying in bulk and shoppers who stocked up are starting to use what they've amassed in their freezers.

"Consumers who stockpiled are destocking," economist Will Sawyer of the agricultural lender CoBank tells The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Prices fell by about 20 cents in a week, which is a lot, Sawyer says.

An April 3 report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows prices dropping significantly for whole chickens, breasts and wings. Thighs and wings were more expensive.

Because restaurants aren't ordering the amount of chicken they normally would, many plants are overstocked, reports the USDA. Plants are working to shift poultry packaging from food service to retail, reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it's happening slowly while keeping employees safe during the pandemic.

Poultry plants face the same threat as other meat processing factories. Employees work in very close conditions where the virus could spread rapidly among them.

What's happening to milk

A truck driver wearing a mask drives through New York City in mid-March.
A truck driver wearing a mask drives through New York City in mid-March. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

While some consumers are having a hard time finding dairy products, some dairy farmers have been asked to dump their milk. Despite massive demand, disruptions in the food supply chain means they can't get it to market and to the consumers who want it, reports Reuters.

The Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the largest U.S. dairy cooperative, told the news outlet that it had asked some of its 7,500 members to dump their milk, but did not say how many. Dairy farmer Jason Leedle of Chicago said he dumped 4,700 gallons of milk from his 480 cows for several days last week.

Due to school and restaurants closings, the bulk of sales now have to shift to grocery stores instead of wholesale outlets. That has resulted in "logistical and packaging nightmares" for the plants that process dairy products, Reuters points out. In addition, trucking companies are having a hard time finding enough truckers willing to haul products during the pandemic. In addition, the export of dairy has ended for the time being.

Leedle and other farmers will get paid by the cooperatives for the milk they are discarding, but they won't make as much as they would if they were taking it to market.

Food waste is a growing problem

A pile of zucchini and squash was discarded by a farmer in Florida City, Florida, in early April.
A pile of zucchini and squash was discarded by a farmer in Florida City, Florida, in early April. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Because school cafeterias, restaurants and college dining halls no longer need food, food waste is becoming a big problem. Besides dairy farmers dumping milk, farmers are turning their produce directly into mulch because they have no way of getting it directly into the hands of individual companies instead of larger-scale operations, Politco reports.

"The way a client described it is they're seeing a tsunami of demand shift from foodservice to food retail," Bahige El-Rayes, a partner in the consumer and retail practice at Kearney, a consulting firm, tells Politico. "If you're a manufacturer today of food, it's basically how do you adapt? How do you actually take what you sent to restaurants then sell it now to retail?"

The site reports that supermarket chain Kroger is partnering with Sysco and U.S. Foods, two companies that normally work with restaurants and institutions. They're sharing labor and keeping inventory stocked.

But for consumers, it's frustrating to see so much food wasted. There needs to be a way to get it to the people who need it. The government needs to help by buying food from growers and transporting it to food banks, Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served as secretary of agriculture during the Obama administration, told CNN.

"It is a cascading series of events here that is disrupting the entire food chain," Vilsack said. "You start ending school lunch programs, universities shut down, food service shuts down, tourism and hotels have low occupancy and at the end of the day you have a tremendous amount of the overall supply of food having to be redirected."

There will be enough food

Shoppers were kept to a minimum at a Trader Joe's in Denver in late March.
Shoppers were kept to a minimum at a Trader Joe's in Denver in late March. Barry Dale Gilfry [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

In the beginning of the crisis, there was some concern about food. Would there be enough for everyone? Would shoppers be able to find it?

Industry experts believe the food is there; it just needs to get to consumers.

"There will be enough food produced on the farm," Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told USA Today. But "there’s a lot of things that happen to the food before it gets to the consumer, whether it be in processing or transportation. If this thing was to get worse, what problems come along with that? None of us really know."

With plant closures, high demand, and problems with food getting to who needs it, there will continue to be shortages in high-demand foods.

“You might not get what you want when you want it,” Christine McCracken, a meat industry analyst at Rabobank in New York, told The New York Times. “Consumers like to have a lot of different choices, and the reality is in the short term, we just don’t have the labor to make that happen.”

However, overall food supply shortages won't be an issue, Dan Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, told USA Today.

"The food supply chain is remarkably resilient and effective," Sumner said. "Sure there are little inconveniences. But the basics are in great shape."