The food industry isn’t immune to disruptions in the supply chain. From weather events such as droughts and flooding that reduce crop yields to food contamination that mandates pulling a product from market, disruptions frequently occur. But the COVID-19 pandemic is uncovering a different type of interruption—one that doesn’t affect just a single part of the supply chain or geographical location but is pervasive and unpredictable in its scope and duration.
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Explore This IssueJune/July 2020
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“It’s all new and confusing,” says Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, of the pandemic’s effects. “It’s unique in agriculture, as typically there have been strains and problems in one area of agriculture, but now it is best described as ‘we’re all in this soup together.’” As a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Blue Earth County in southern Minnesota, Paap knows firsthand the stressors farmers face. He describes the current strain the pandemic is forcing on the food industry as a series of traffic jams and logistical challenges along the supply chain that continues to morph and pressure farmers and the food industry as a whole to adapt quickly.
He sees these challenges as a series of waves, with the first wave caused by the rapid change in consumer behavior as the demand for food shifted away from food service and restaurants toward retail amidst fears of the virus and stay-at-home mandates. This was followed by a wave of slowdowns in food processing and manufacturing plants as they restructured to deal with this shift in consumer demand.
The latest and third wave, says Paap, is the closure of plants as workers fall ill with COVID-19, disrupting the market for livestock and processing. Closures of pork and meat plants are a prime example of the challenges facing a sector of the industry that relies on a “just in time” inventory. Large hog farms operating on an “all in and all out” capacity, in which up to 18,000 to 20,000 pigs are slaughtered per day, are now having to euthanize healthy pigs.
Paap underscored the emotional toll this has on farmers. “The last thing farmers want to do after caring for and spending money on animals is to euthanize a healthy animal and go through the emotional and financial strain of that,” he says. A further strain on hog farmers is the responsibility of having to bear the cost of animal disposal.
Crops are also taking a hit, as is dairy, with reports of farmers plowing over acres of lettuce fields and dairy farmers spilling excess milk, all due to disruptions to the food supply chain caused by shifts in consumer demand and outbreaks of the disease among plant and field workers.
Although Paap echoes the prevailing message from USDA and FDA that food remains safe and secure, the food industry is feeling the acute challenge facing the world at large: how to balance the health risks of the disease with the economic disruptions of closing or slowing down production.
Worker Safety at Meatpacking Plants
“Over the years, meat processors have been better equipped to deal with food safety issues that arise from the food itself,” said Rong Li, assistant professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University in New York, in an April 14, 2020 story in Food Safety News. “This pandemic, however, forces them to be equipped to deal with food safety issues that come from the employee and the shortage of labor.”
The number of workers falling ill bear this out. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the union that represents most workers in meatpacking and food processing plants, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly affected by the virus, as of the end of April 2020. These numbers include those who have tested positive for COVID-19, those awaiting test results, those in self-quarantine and missing work, and those with symptomatic disease or in the hospital. Overall, at press time, the union reports 72 worker deaths from the virus.
But, the effects are much broader and deeper. More than a dozen meatpacking plant closures over the last few months have led to a 25% reduction in pork and 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity that in turn has affected 45,000 workers. Another growing problem is absenteeism as workers simply stop showing up for work out of concerns of getting the virus under plant conditions they deem unsafe.
Ensuring the safety of workers is a main talking point heard from industry and government leaders. Chris Young, executive director of American Association of Meat Processors, says that the industry is working diligently to mitigate risks to employees, with many plants implementing preventive practices beyond the usual safety measures of complete daily sanitation of plants and use of virus-killing soaps and detergents. Extra measures include screening everyone who enters the plant and requiring masks. Some plants have implemented policies on social distancing on the slaughter floor or on production lines, but these remain challenging, he adds. These are some of the measures recently recommended by CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in their published interim guidance for meat and poultry processing workers and employers. The guidance emphasizes the need to identify a qualified workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 assessment and control planning whom workers can contact with concerns.
Still, more safety is needed. Social distancing is nearly impossible to implement in meat packing plants, given the close quarters in which workers labor. Common sense prevention measures such as mandating workers to stay home if they feel sick may be difficult given the multiple challenges of workers who often can’t afford to lose wages and don’t have health insurance or any type of safety net.
UFCW wants virus testing prioritized for food industry employees. The union is also requesting that meat packing companies provide full sick leave for any worker infected with COVID-19, as well as adequate protective gear. It also wants companies to enforce social distancing among employees.
On April 28, 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order stating that all meat processing plants were to reopen and stay open, designating them as critical infrastructure under the Defense Production Act. Under the order, plants will work with USDA to ensure compliance with the recent CDC/OSHA guidelines. Whether or not this will prioritize more testing and protective gear for workers is yet to be seen.
Impact on Produce Farms and Smaller Processing Plants
Amid the headline news of how COVID-19 is affecting the meat industry are the ongoing acounts of what is occuring among produce farmers and small food processing plants that need to adapt as well due to shifting consumer demands, labor shortages, and changing markets.
Rong Li underscores that consumer shopping behaviors are changing, with more people consuming products deemed healthy, such as fresh foods, and most preferring local brands over international ones. Additionally, more people now prefer to shop online for groceries. “This means that the food supply chains should adjust rapidly, on product line and quantity, to meet the new customer behavior,” she adds.
Farmers and processors are adapting. Tom Atherstone, founder and owner of Glass Onion Catering and Gourmet Foods in Richmond, Calif., says that his mid-sized food processing plant, which produces fresh, short-shelf life, premade products such as salads, wraps, and parfaits for major retail grocers, has seen a substantial 65% drop in business as their “grab and go” products are less in demand. “People are not on the go now; they are at home, so most aren’t buying premade salads or wraps,” he adds. To adapt to the loss, six administrative staff have been furloughed, as well as approximately 15 of 139 plant workers. The remaining 124 workers are working fewer hours. Luckily, he says, no employee has contracted the virus, but the concern weighs heavy on everyone. The usual preventive measures—including using gloves, washing hands often, donning clean smocks, and using door sanitizer—are in place, but he acknowledged that “stepping it up a notch or two has been a little challenging.” The company does constant intense cleanup and sanitization, including a full plant sanitation after production hours that prioritizes traffic areas such as the lunch room and restrooms. He is also trying to obtain temperature gauges and masks but is having difficulty given the high demand and low supply.
Atherstone says his 40,000-square foot USDA Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level 2 facility has seen an increase in a smaller catalog part of the business that provides frozen food online to retailers such as Williams Sonoma. One of the biggest challenges overall, he says, is adjusting to the unpredictable fluctuations in demand. “You really are living day by day,” he said. “What we are doing here is focusing on today, celebrating a new purchase order when it comes in, and getting to tomorrow.”
Produce farmers are also concerned about markets and sales, as well as worker safety. “Fruit and vegetable producers in Minnesota are facing similar struggles as many other industries right now,” says Annalisa Hultberg, MS, an educator in food safety through the On-Farm GAPs Education Program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “Some of the biggest challenges are staffing and personnel concerns, and how to manage a crew who will be planting, working in the greenhouse, and then harvesting and packing while maintaining social distancing guidelines.” Larger farms that employ many workers, including those with H-2A visas, are particularly worried about finding adequate labor to plant, weed, and harvest produce.
Many of the farmers she talks to are being proactive in mitigating the risk of COVID-19 to their operations, she says. On top of the usual safety measures, many are limiting the number of visitors and trying to implement physical distancing among workers. Some U-pick operations, like berry farms and apple orchards, are adjusting by limiting the number of people allowed to pick at one time, enforcing physical distancing, and increasing handwashing stations while they await guidelines for further direction.
For some farmers, sales are increasing. Protein farmers and fruit and vegetable CSA (community supported agriculture) members are seeing more interest in their products, with an increase in pre-orders, says Hultberg.
Some Good News
Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of food industry stakeholders, says the growers in his network have not yet seen large disruptions due to the virus. Members of the consortium, which sells to both foodservice and retail buyers, have shifted sales to retail with the collapse of foodservice demand. He says that EFI-certified growers have not seen outbreaks among workers that have led to labor or produce shortages. These growers are being proactive to protect workers and avoid labor shortages. “A number of suppliers we work with have encouraged older workers to stay home with pay, which is huge,” says O’Driscoll. Some suppliers are also trying to identify workers at high risk of contracting severe illness from COVID-19 and offering them the option of staying home with reduced pay or reducing their work load or exposure.
When asked about the financial sustainability of this approach, he emphasizes measures put in place prior to COVID-19 that strengthened EFI growers’ ability to implement social distancing measures in response to the pandemic. A key measure and aim of EFI is to drive workforce development within the produce industry, he said, which includes a new approach to labor.
As in many sectors of the economy, COVID-19 has laid bare the impact of worker vulnerability on the food supply chain. “For the produce industry to survive the pandemic, you need to professionalize the workforce,” says O’Driscoll. One way to do this is for farms to create a worker-management committee to solve problems that arise, such as COVID-19. These teams are comprised of members from across the workforce, such as pickers, sprayers, quality control individuals, irrigators, and managers, and are trained by EFI in problem solving, conflict resolution, and communication strategies. “This was our basic tool before COVID-19,” said O’Driscoll. “When COVID-19 hit, our growers said they had the worker-manager dialogue piece ready to go and they were able to talk to their leadership teams about the crisis and how to make the real mitigation steps work.”
Going forward, and as the pandemic plays out, more innovative ideas about strengthening and improving the food supply chain will undoubtedly emerge. As in other sectors of society, the current public health and economic upheaval is uncovering multiple weaknesses and vulnerabilities along the food supply chain, providing, and even mandating, new thinking on some very old problems.