The Food Supply Chain is Breaking

Written by John T. Hoffman

“The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote board Chairman John Tyson in a full-page advertisement published Sunday in The New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat- Gazette.  Anyone visiting a grocery store already has figured this out. Tyson Foods is also warning that “millions of pounds of meat” will disappear from the supply chain as the corona virus pandemic pushes food processing plants to close, leading to product shortages in grocery stores across the country.

YOU DO NOT NEED TO RUN TO GROCERY STORE TODAY. THE SHELVES WILL NOT BECOME BARREN, but your selections will become limited and hundreds of thousands of hogs and chickens will be culled and buried while tens of thousands of Americans are lined up in front of food banks that are challenged to keep up with the demand.

This did not need to happen. The warnings that this was coming were clear. Years of pandemic planning beginning in 2004-5 highlighted the fact that America’s food systems were uniquely vulnerable to the effects of a pandemic. In February of this year many in academia and industry knew that if the pandemic became sustained and large-scale, we would face major problems.  Steps would need to be taken very early on to protect this fragile but vital infrastructure–from farm to retail. Few were listening at the federal or state levels. With the prospect that food service supply chains would shut down, as was considered in the pandemic planning, major adjustments would need to be made early on to adjust supply chains. These changes included: protecting the vital workers in the fields, processing plants and across the supply chains.  

None of this was done. Instead, leaders and senior staff of the various federal agencies responsible for regulating and sustaining the operational environment for our food system simply said the food system is fine, there is plenty of food and there are only minor “misalignment” problems. 

Well today, not so much. Early into the pandemic, the food industry asked for help with:

  • personal protective equipment (PPE),
  • disease surveillance and monitoring of employee health,
  • protecting the health of and access to seasonal agriculture and plant workers,
  • and help with insuring access to critical imports.

The first steps to meet these requests have just been made in the past few days, but it may be too late. 

Food processing plants are closing or significantly reducing production levels. Protein plants for processing beef, swine and poultry, have been hit the worse with COVID-19 spreading throughout their workforce. The impact is severe—from factories to farms.

Today, we have an estimated 500,000 otherwise healthy, market ready hogs in excess of processing capacity. A similar situation exists for poultry.  (Beef cattle are less of an issue because they can simply remain on pasture until needed.)  But this is not the case for swine and poultry. The result is that these food animals will need to be “culled” and disposed of quickly, as there is no capacity to store or sustain them. This is going to begin over the next week and the killing will be on a massive scale—unlike ever seen in the US. 

The disposal needed will exceed even the worst case scenarios considered in planning for a major livestock disease outbreak or similar disaster.  Who will be able to do this, who can stand up the resources needed to collect move and dispose of such vast numbers of 280 pound dead animals?  The only viable disposal method on this scale is burial. Where will that be done?  In 1999, 30,000 dead hogs had to be buried in North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd. The military was called in to collect and bury these animals. That burial site is still controversial and remains both a social and environmental challenge.

One of the reasons for the bureaucratic gridlock in this response is the fact that more than a dozen federal agencies have shared and overlapping responsibility for protecting America’s food supply chain. Who is really in charge? 

Today, it looks like no one.