Turning on the news to hear stories about empty supermarket shelves and possible food shortages alongside coverage of farmers dumping milk and plowing under crops can be confusing, to say the least. And it’s leaving many consumers with questions about the food supply chain: Why can’t farmers get the food they produce to consumers? How long will shortages last? Are we in danger of running out of food?
Get the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about recent supply chain challenges due to COVID-19 and how these challenges are affecting both U.S. farmers and consumers.
Why are meat shelves empty at the supermarket?
Worker illness due to the pandemic has led to the shutdown of many meat processing facilities around the U.S., which has dramatically slowed down the beef, pork and chicken supply chains. Plants that remain open have also had to slow down processing to accommodate for both social distancing and the frequent deep cleaning of facilities to keep workers safe.
According to the Purdue University College of Agriculture, there are more than 60,000 pork producers in the country, but about 60% of all hogs end up getting processed at just 15 of the country’s large pork-packing plants. Each of these plants then distributes the meat to tens of thousands of supermarkets and restaurants around the country, so if even one or two have to shut down or slow production, the effects will be seen far down the line on both agricultural and consumer sides. While farmers are still raising plenty of animals across the country, the processes that get that meat from the farm to your table have been bottlenecked, leading to the empty meat shelves you’re seeing at the supermarket.
Why are some farmers dumping milk and throwing away food?
Although dairy farmers are producing the same amount of milk as ever, the pandemic has disrupted the processing and distribution sectors that get that milk to consumers. With more than half of all milk demand in the U.S. coming from restaurants and school cafeterias that have been forced to close, farmers are left with excess milk supply and nowhere to send it. And since demand shifted from restaurants and schools to grocery stores within just a few weeks, many dairies did not have the equipment or funds to adapt to the quick change. Many of those that package milk in cartons for school lunchrooms, for example, do not have the equipment to package milk in gallon jugs for supermarkets.
Since processing facilities and restaurants aren’t buying their normal supply of milk – and food banks don’t have access to the equipment to process raw milk – farmers have been left with few options but to dump their excess milk.
Like with dairy, many supply chains for fresh fruits and vegetables deliver exclusively to restaurants. Since ripe veggies only remain sellable for a short period of time, it hasn’t been possible to make changes in these supply chains quickly enough. For farmers, dumping food is devastating. While they would love nothing more than to get their products to the many Americans depending on food banks during this crisis, disruptions in the supply chain have made it impossible for many.
Why are some farmers having to euthanize animals? Can’t they keep them on the farms?
Because meat processing plants have not been able to take their usual number of animals, farms can quickly become overcrowded as animals grow. This can cause significant problems for animal welfare. Maintaining proper temperatures, hygiene and air quality for animals becomes much more difficult in overcrowded conditions. And animals in overcrowded environments cannot rest comfortably and express their normal behaviors, which can lead to distress and aggression.
Like throwing away food, euthanizing animals is a devastating last resort for farmers who seek out all possible solutions before making the difficult decision. Unfortunately, euthanasia can sometimes be the most humane approach for farmers when considering that alternatives would cause the animals to suffer. When farmers do have to euthanize, they work with veterinarians to use the quickest and most humane methods possible.
How are farmers adapting to supply chain challenges?
Although farmers are dealing with unprecedented obstacles right now, many are looking for creative solutions to help get the food they’re producing to the people who need it. They’re finding ways to offer donations, adapting business models to provide home delivery, turning to local markets as CSAs see a boom in demand, and seeking other alternatives to prevent food waste.
Cranney Farms in Oakley, Idaho, for example, gave away 2 million potatoes when demand dropped due to restaurant closures across the country. Potato farmer Ryan Cranney, who normally sells around 90% of his crop to restaurants, was left with 2 million harvested potatoes and no one to buy them. He couldn’t bear the thought of letting them go to waste, so he posted a photo of the potato pile on his Facebook page and welcomed anyone to stop by and take some for free. Word spread like wildfire as thousands of people showed up from as far away as Kansas and Nevada to collect potatoes, both for food banks and their own families.
How will COVID-19 change the meat processing industry?
In light of recent challenges, the meat processing industry in the United States will likely see a fundamental, long-term change. We will probably see a movement toward more automated processes and robotics in slaughterhouses to reduce the need for human workers and make meat processing plants safer and more efficient.
Should I be concerned about the safety of my food?
As of right now, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.”
How long will shortages last?
How long shortages will last is hard to predict since it will depend on a steady decrease in cases of COVID-19 and the reopening of restaurants, schools, food processing plants and other organizations on a state-by-state basis. The supply chain is also adjusting to this new normal, which could slowly improve the situation. However, we are likely to see shortages of some items at the supermarket until the pandemic is over.
Will we run out of food?
In short, no. Food production is continuing from season to season and farmers are still out there farming. The food supply challenges we’re facing now are not a result of insufficient food, but rather logistical difficulties with the way that food gets to our plate. The quick shift in demand away from restaurants and schools and toward grocery stores has caused a major disruption in the way food normally moves around the country. But we will likely come out of this crisis with a greater knowledge of the shortcomings within our food supply chain, making us better able to adapt to the unexpected in the future.