But the country’s complex food supply chains will nonetheless face mounting risks as the virus persists. This will require steps to keep food prices in check and to meet demand.
One potential opportunity is repurposing, for consumption at home, food normally sold to restaurants, hotels and other hospitality locations, where slightly more than half of the nation’s food expenditures are made. This could reactivate supply chains catering to those businesses. Otherwise, some of this food, especially fruits, vegetables and other perishable products, could go to waste.
In addition China and South Korea, now believed to be past the worst phases of their outbreaks, offer lessons in how to avoid food supply bottlenecks.
Food producers in those countries built trust by sharing information across the supply chain. They reallocated labor to ease bottlenecks and build reserves in areas where shortages could result. For instance, delivery and retail companies borrowed furloughed staff from restaurants and food service providers. Food production was shifted to areas less affected by the virus. Delivery routes were also redirected through those areas.
And having faced the SARS epidemic in 2003, many food companies in Asia had established plans for business disruption, enabling them to modify packaging, storage and testing to maintain quality and safety despite delays in delivery.
With the spreading virus creating uncertainty, the readiness of the food industry to make rapid changes in how it produces and delivers its products to a nervous population will be crucial. So will the willingness of state and federal authorities to provide flexibility while ensuring food safety and minimizing waste. Coordination among all will be vital.
While the good news is that we have sufficient food production to meet our immediate needs, the next few weeks will be critical to keeping Americans supplied with food during a pandemic that has already caused turmoil and could lead to even more upheaval.
Shub Debgupta is an economist and the founder of Mesh Intelligence, a supply chain risk prediction company focused on food.
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