The food supply chain is resilient; the food industry has experienced a wide variety of emergencies, but none of the magnitude or duration caused by this pandemic. With that said, the food industry quickly called upon experiences and processes from past natural disasters and developed a framework for how to respond to this crisis.
Some early activities included:
- Updating and expanding pandemic guidelines.
- Revising cleaning and sanitation protocols to address COVID-19.
- Drafting and adopting industry protocols for employees who test positive for COVID-19.
- Developing recommendations for social distancing in stores to prevent spreading the virus.
Today, these protocols continue to evolve and be adapted as we move through this national emergency and learn more from public health agencies. I want to provide you with an update from FMI- The Food Industry Associationon the supply chain and the work the industry is doing to keep folks fed and healthy during the present national emergency.
I will continue to work with members of our food industries to ensure that people in the Commonwealth are taken care of during these trying times.
Commitment to Safety
Worker and consumer safety is a top priority for grocers. The industry has taken unprecedented steps and precautions to protect their employees and customers. From installing plexiglass stanchions to creating signage for consumer education and constructing pathways for consumers out of pallets to ensure safe shopping to limiting store occupancy, grocers have created various measures to achieve physical (social) distancing in stores.
Additionally, grocers are limiting store hours to thoroughly clean and disinfect their entire store before opening the follow morning (i.e. deep clean), most grocers are more aggressively cleaning and sanitizing high-touch surfaces throughout the day to reduce the risk of transmission. Some food retailers have created "clean teams" where they dedicate specific workforce power to cleaning high-touch surfaces throughout the day. While these protocols require significant investment and manpower, grocers are committed to helping ensure the safety of anyone who comes in the store.
Throughout March, retailers and the entire grocery supply chain experienced unprecedented demand for essential foods. The demand was driven by consumers filling their pantries due to stay at home orders, school and business closures, and government recommendations for stocking up, as well as customer concerns that they might not be able to access necessary food and supplies due to illness or availability. FMI has witnessed two types of purchasing behavior as data started to become available:
- Shopper behavior was at first "preventative preparedness," where the public was focused on household cleaning, personal care, and personal health categories.
- As time quickly passed, that behavior moved to "response preparedness." As a result of businesses moving to telework and schools being closed, the first images of empty shelves emerged in the news cycle, which escalated public fear that they would either not be able to access food, or they would be faced with self-quarantine.
Grocery Shopping Habits and Online
After the first surge of demand in the stores, and as people started to shelter in place, e-commerce started to experience significant spikes in demand. Retailers who typically averaged 3% of sales online, were quickly experiencing 12-20% of sales moving to the online channel.
Many shoppers have increased or are shopping online for the first time, as almost one-half of Americans have shopped online for grocery-type items in the past month. This is more than twice the percentage of monthly online shoppers from U.S. Grocery Shoppers Trends research one year ago. Many of these shoppers (17%) are new to online grocery shopping and recall no shopping for grocery-type items before this month, while others (4%) recall shopping previously for grocery-type items and have returned this month for the first time in a while.
FMI has been in direct contact with leadership at the North American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and United Pork Board to better understand some of the supply and operational challenges portrayed in recent national media stories. Namely, articles suggest that as more workers in meat processing plants contract the Coronavirus, plants are having to close and/or slow production for cleaning or due to a reduced workforce. These stories are also fueling concerns that there is plenty of beef and pork, but a potentially reduced ability to process it.
FMI has been told:
- Currently there is enough retail food supply. Per FDA, there is no food shortage in this country.
- Some processing plants have indeed closed or slowed down due to COVID-related illnesses or social distancing efforts, but these instances are not impacting all facilities.
- The beef industry maintains sufficient herd stock, so the concern is that if processing plants do close, this could lead to challenges in several months.
- Due to the closure of restaurants, restaurant-quality beef is being ground, spurring tremendous financial loss.
- The industry is predicting plenty of middle meats available, and therefore we might see lower pricing in those areas.
It is the hope that low prices and a consistent protein supply will help abate demand challenges and offer consumers some relief during this national emergency. Here are specific areas that may help to alleviate supply stress:
- Guidance from FDA: As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and food manufacturers may have food not labeled for retail sale that they wish to sell at retail. The FDA has released a guidance document to provide restaurants and other businesses with flexibility regarding nutrition labeling so that they can sell certain packaged food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- FMI's foodservice partnership: Through this crisis, new alliances are being forged. FMI and the International Food Distributors Association have started working together to bring food, labor, and equipment resources to grocery retail which was then expanded to other industry associations representing seafood and produce.
- Labor solutions: Stakeholders and retailers have formed connections to assist people from industries with layoffs to find work in the grocery supply chain.
Anxiety among consumers has been on the rise in research, as a majority of shoppers (60%) express some level of concern about their ability to have enough food for their households in the coming weeks, with 33% being extremely or very concerned. One-fourth of Americans (25%) are especially worried about having enough money to pay for food.
The USDA is working closely with stakeholders to ensure products are available for those customers using their SNAP or WIC benefits and our members are continuing to focus on maintaining their status as the largest donors to foodbanks in spite of the challenges this emergency imposes. Questions about the emerging job market have resulted in these anxieties and uncertainties impacting households across income levels that retailers are working to address by keeping prices as low as possible.
Strong Public-Private Cooperation
It should be noted, while supply chain may be strained in certain areas for periods of time and shortages or out of stocks will be experienced, but the supply will return, and it will remain resilient if we work together by encouraging our friends, families, and neighbors to only purchase what they need for a week or two.
I will continue to work with stakeholders, retailers, and suppliers as well as officials at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure that folks in our region are well fed and supplied during these difficult times. If you are in need of assistance during these times, click here to send me an email directly.