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.
“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.