We’ve all seen news footage of people panic-buying toilet paper. Some of us have eyewitnessed some empty shelves in grocery stores, which later were restocked.
In fact, America’s grocery stores are generally well stocked. Government officials explain any temporary shortages as the result of unprecedented demand because people have bought more than usual, rather than an actual supply-chain breakdown. In the words of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on March 20: “I want to assure you that our food supply chain is sound.”
But a FEMA internal document obtained by Yahoo News warns that we may begin to see food shortages for some products if supply chain workers — the people who make, package and deliver food — lack personal protective equipment (PPE) against the COVID-19 coronavirus, such as face masks and gloves.
PPE has been in short supply in hospitals, where doctors and nurses are routinely exposed to high amounts of coronavirus. The food industry also relies on a variety of protective equipment for food safety.
Alexander Nazaryan and Jana Winter report for Yahoo News that the April 2, 2020 internal document, titled “Senior Leadership Brief COVID-19,” bears the seals of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It contains a brief description of findings made by the Food Supply Chain Task Force that provides a daily update on various aspects of the coronavirus response, including details ranging from state-by-state infections to hospital capacity and test sites, as well as the availability of PPE.
The FEMA document warns that “if current PPE inventory is exhausted” — if face masks and gloves run out across the food supply chain — there would be the following shortages:
- Shortages of milk within 24 hours.
- Shortages of fresh fruits and vegetables “within several days.”
- Meat, poultry, seafood, and processed eggs would become scarce within a period of two to four weeks.
- “Dry goods and processed foods inventories” — that is, the non-perishables that are pantry staples — could become scarce “as soon as four weeks”.
It must be emphasized that the FEMA document is a warning of what may happen, and is not descriptive of the current situation. There are no signs of a food shortage in America, although the Wuhan virus pandemic is putting strain on every aspect of the food supply chain, from the people who raise and grow what we eat to the people who deliver it to our supermarkets.
Officials from FEMA, HHS and Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment. A senior Trump administration official said “We are not seeing any disruptions,” but declined to comment on the task force findings.
Food economist and Cornell University Ph.D. Shub Debgupta, author of a New York Times op/ed “Will the Coronavirus Threaten Our Food?,” told Yahoo News that although the United States “came into the whole virus outbreak with a relatively strong position” of “lots of frozen foods” in storage due to the China trade war, that “cushion” is “disappearing now.”
While Debgupta agreed with the government’s statements about the food supply chain, he cautioned that the situation could change in the coming weeks, citing the movement of food down the supply chain as the biggest potential problem:
“A few weeks or a month ago we were fine. We are fine. The issue really is in the distribution. If we don’t address that — the movement of people and goods — we’ll be in quite a lot of trouble.”
H/t longtime FOTM reader Anon