As the Omicron variant fades, many anticipate at least a respite from a virus that has shattered systems and societies, even while another variant, BA.2, gains ground. Both the respite from one variant of COVID-19 and the increasing spread of another underscore the uncertainties remaining about the full impact of this virus.
How has the food industry adapted? What have the past two years shown about the vulnerabilities and strengths of the food industry, and what lessons have been learned that can carry the industry forward through inevitable future major disruptions?
“COVID-19 was a real wake-up call to highlight vulnerabilities in our food supply chain,” says Jeffrey LeJeune, PhD, food safety officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The organization has provided many guidance and policy briefs on COVID-19 and the food supply, and continues to monitor, update, and advise the industry.
As an internationally recognized expert in food safety and diseases transmitted between animals and people, Dr. LeJeune emphasizes that the challenges to the food industry brought on by the pandemic are not related to the biology of the virus itself, in the critical sense that the virus causing COVID-19 is not transmitted by foods or food packaging.
What did stress the food industry during the first wave of the virus was the need to rapidly adapt systems from farm to table to safeguard against a new infectious virus with deadly potential. Among the changes was the need to quickly develop and implement strategies around supply chain issues to accommodate changing consumer demands. Food packaged and labeled for restaurants, for example, had to be repackaged and labeled for sale at grocery stores. Worker safety issues and facility safety protocols moved to the forefront as meat and other food processing facilities had to quickly impose measures to protect workers and facilities from the rapidly and highly contagious virus. Worker shortages, brought on by worker absenteeism due to illness or by the millions of people who have left the workforce, continue to strain the industry.
Major disruptions to the supply chain continue to cause major fallout. Aljoša Trmčič, PhD, dairy extension associate at Cornell University in New York, NY, and part of the Food Industry COVID-19 Emergency Task Force that assisted local, national, and international food industries with issues related to the pandemic, says that supply chain disruptions hit every sector of the food industry and resulted in difficulty getting sufficient amounts of raw materials and supplies (such as packaging and cleaning chemicals), maintaining a sufficient workforce to make and distribute products, and—particularly challenging—protecting workers from the virus.
Now, going into the beginning of the third year of the pandemic, the food industry continues to grapple with its effects. Response by the food industry to these effects has helped the industry adapt and move forward with potentially increased resilience to meet future major disruptions. What issues still face the food industry? How can the sector be ready for any large-scale obstacles that come down the pipeline?
Supply Chain Disruptions to the Food Industry
Shawn K. Stevens, a food industry attorney in Milwaukee and a member of the Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Board, underscores the supply chain issues still facing most companies —from difficulty obtaining certain ingredients to the challenge of retaining sufficient employees to manage the work. “Everyone is feeling pressure,” he says.
Recent evidence from Minnesota attests to these ongoing issues. General Mills, as reported recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is seeing major disruptions in ingredients getting into their plants and is having difficulty, for example, keeping up with consumer demand for various products (e.g., ready-to-bake items, hot snacks, and pizza). The hospitality industry in Minnesota cites higher costs and supply chain challenges; a major issue is that the industry has 32,000 fewer workers compared with pre-pandemic levels.