Coronavirus stress-tests the food supply network


Ryan McCrimmon, POLITICO



FOOD SUPPLY IS STABLE, SAY FARMERS, RETAILERS AND REGULATORS: Federal meat inspectors, top grocery retailers, distributors and farm groups on Tuesday continued to stress that the food supply is holding steady as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases surpassed 5,000, your host and Pro Ag’s Catherine Boudreau write.


USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which is required by law to be present at more than 6,200 slaughterhouses across the country and employs about 7,800 inspectors, said plants are operating as normal.


Industry groups including the North American Meat Institute and USA Rice, whose products have been flying off store shelves, emphasized that there are no shortages and plentiful supplies. Fresh produce continues to flow across the Southern border from Mexico — which accounts for about 50 percent of the U.S. fruit and vegetable supply.


Retail chains like Walmart, Kroger and H-E-B have reduced store hours to give workers more time to restock high-demand products overnight, while Amazon is hiring an extra 100,000 warehouse workers to tackle increased demand for household staples, including groceries.


“This is a demand issue, not a supply issue,” said Heather Garlich, vice president of media and public relations at FMI, the food industry association formerly known as the Food Marketing Institute. “The supply chain isn’t broken. The warehouses are pushing out as much inventory as possible in a 24-hour period.”


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GROCERS GET CREATIVE: Grocery stores large and small are experimenting with operational changes amid the pandemic. Kroger, the biggest U.S. supermarket chain, is considering giving seniors and shoppers with medical conditions exclusive access to stores for an hour in the morning, allowing them to avoid crowds later in the day and ensure they can purchase high-demand goods.


“We’re starting to test it in a few markets in the next couple of days to see how it works,” Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said on CNBC. He said the company is “getting deliveries every day,” including household goods like toilet paper, though he acknowledged there seems to be a shortage of hand sanitizers with “very little coming in."


Independent grocery stores are also pulling out all the stops...