COVID-19 impact on food supply chain |

COVID-19 impact on food supply chain

The food supply chain in the U.S. took another hit with the increasing fervor surrounding COVID-19. Panic buying cleared the shelves and distribution chains were interrupted by the cancellation of major events ranging from professional sports to the closures of college food service and, most recently, restaurant dining rooms in a number of states.

Dr. Jayson Lusk, Purdue University, said though grocery purchasing behavior seems irrational it has been enlightening to see plant-based burgers left behind as meat cases are emptied. Lusk said domestic demand for meat is likely to pull meat out of cold storage, offsetting the reductions in foreign demand that has hit hard some of the U.S.’s largest export markets.

Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemens Beef Association told Lane Nordlund that panic impacted markets, dropping futures from what actual supply and demand are. Woodall said he’s seen a number of photographs taken of empty beef cases and the group’s goal is to keep the flow of beef moving to stores and to assure consumers that there is more coming.

Woodall said the majority of NCBA’s conversations as of late have been directly with packers and they have all communicated their intentions to keep their plants up and running with protocols in place for sick employees. Perhaps as important, he said, is keeping the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspectors in place for without them on the job, the plants can not operate despite the best intentions.

Just as prices dropped following the Tyson fire last summer when the processing capacity was temporarily reduced, a similar capacity decrease due to worker illness would likely have the same effect.

In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence Tuesday, the NCBA asked that those federal inspection entities be granted the flexibility necessary to maximize plant capacity and shift time to minimize disruptions. In addition to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hours of Service Emergency Waiver will help the shelves of grocery stores remain stocked, Ethan Lane, vice president, government affairs, asked Pence to consider expanding the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s emergency declaration to include haulers transporting shipments of livestock feed, critically important animal health technologies, and trucks moving livestock to feedyards and packing facilities. The FMCSA’s expansion to include drivers hauling food and immediate precursor raw materials was announced on March 18. He also requested that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission keep watch on the cattle markets to ensure the uncertainty of the live cattle market is not manipulated to take advantage of the situation.

On March 18, the NCBA sent a letter to the North American Meat Institute asking members to be aggressive in the cash market and place bids based on the increased cut out value

The USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary of Food Safety Dr. Mindy Brashears and Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach released a letter to stakeholders Tuesday assuring that USDA is rising to the challenge of meeting the demands associated with the virus.

As inspection services continue as normal now, FSIS is tracking absenteeism, something they typically plan for, to address staffing concerns to minimize impacts to operations.

In a video released the same day, Secretary Sonny Purdue said the food supply remains strong thanks to the work of truck drivers, grocery store employees, and food service workers.

Albertson’s and Safeway stores in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and New Mexico announced Wednesday they will reserve stores on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 9 a.m. for vulnerable shoppers, including the elderly and pregnant women, and those with other risk factors. Heather Halpape, public affairs manager for the chain, said the company’s distribution center, milk plant, and beverage plant in Denver allow stores to be replenished daily. She said there is plenty of product but it takes time to get it to stores and restocked and they are continuing to ask shoppers to respect quantity limits on items like cleaning supplies and toilet paper.

In Brazil, Bloomberg reported local prices dropped to a four-month low as demand shifts to mostly home-based meals amid global demand concerns. Meatingplace reported that JBS SA announced Monday they are considering suspending processing operations in Brazil, though they continue to operate normally. China is Brazil’s largest meat importer.

Laura Shunk, communications director for the Colorado Restaurant Association, said restaurant closures will be devastating for restaurant owners and staff. The CRA is compiling a list of resources for owners and employees as they navigate the closures. She said they have also asked local, state, and federal government for assistance.

She said the blow to the restaurant industry is softened slightly by allowing take out and delivery options, but some restaurants aren’t able to do so and have closed their doors. ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at or (970) 768-0024.

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