Coronavirus may cause some food shortages, warns government task force

WASHINGTON — The nation could begin to see food shortages for some products if the people working on the supply chain lack personal protective equipment, warns an internal Trump administration document obtained by Yahoo News.

Empty supermarket shelves have become one of the most jarring images of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened 270,000 Americans and killed 7,000. But so far, there have been no food shortages, despite 90 percent of the American population being under state-enforced lockdown orders.

And despite the difficulties people have had in obtaining certain foods, like pasta, grocery stores are generally well stocked. Government officials have argued that any temporary shortages are the result of unprecedented demand, as people have bought more than usual, rather than an actual supply-chain breakdown.

“I want to assure you that our food supply chain is sound,” Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, said on March 20.

That, however, could change if the people who make, package and deliver food lack personal protective equipment, or PPE, including face masks and gloves, according to the internal document shared with Yahoo News, which 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.

A delivery worker outside a Whole Foods Market on Wednesday in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

The document, titled “Senior Leadership Brief COVID-19” and dated April 2, 2020, bears the seals of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. It contains a brief description of findings made by the Food Supply Chain Task Force on the availability of PPE. 

Such equipment 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.

The April 2 briefing warns that the task force had completed an analysis and there could be “commodity impacts if current PPE inventory is exhausted.” There would be shortages of milk within 24 hours and of fresh fruits and vegetables “within several days.” The document estimates that “meat, poultry, seafood, and processed eggs” would become scarce within a period of two to four weeks, while “dry goods and processed foods inventories” — that is, the non-perishables that are pantry staples — could become scarce “as soon as four weeks” after face masks and gloves run out across the food supply chain.

The document is a warning, and is not descriptive of the current situation. There are no signs of a food shortage across the nation. But the coronavirus 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.

A Long Island, N.Y., supermarket in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

HuffPost (which, like Yahoo News, is part of Verizon Media), reported on Friday that poultry producer Sanderson Farms has disclosed that 11 eleven of its workers have become ill with COVID-19 in six different plants across the country.

In revealing the illnesses among Sanderson’s employees, the company’s president underscored the importance of keeping grocery stores well stocked. “We call upon you to look at this crisis as an opportunity to serve, as we do,” Lampkin Butts wrote in a letter to employees. “Now more than ever, we need to come together as a company and a nation, and continue to provide the critical supply of food we all need.”

Officials from FEMA, HHS and Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment. “We are not seeing any disruptions,” a senior Trump administration official said, but declined to comment on the task force findings.

At a press conference of the coronavirus task force on Thursday, Rear Adm. John Polowczyk said a total of 34 cargo planes would bring medical supplies to the United States (six have already arrived), so that hospitals in New York City and other coronavirus hotspots could adequately protect medical personnel treating COVID-19 patients.

At the same time, he seemed to say that the federal government would not be a clearinghouse for all relevant supplies. “If you are in a hospital and not seeing PPE, I would look up to the state level first,” Polowczyk said in response to one question.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has complained that states have been forced to bid on hospital equipment, thus creating an atmosphere of competition instead of collaboration. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a recent news conference at the Javits Center in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

The needs of food supply chain workers could further complicate the availability of face masks and gloves.

“You’ve got the medical supply chain and the food supply chain, and both are now pulling on the PPE supply chain,” says Daniel Stanton, a supply chain expert who goes by “Mr. Supply Chain” and is the author of “Supply Chain Management for Dummies.” 

“How do you prioritize PPE for food workers and truck drivers versus people working in the hospital?” Stanton wondered in discussing the matter with Yahoo News. “That's a tough decision to make,” he said, acknowledging that medical professionals should, of course, be the first to receive the necessary protective equipment.

“But food is kind of a big deal too,” Stanton pointed out. 

Food economist Shub Debgupta, who has pointed out that the coronavirus could imperil food supply, told Yahoo News that the United States “came into the whole virus outbreak with a relatively strong position. Because of the China trade war, lots of frozen foods were in storage for a long time, we had a cushion we could rely on. That’s disappearing now."

While he agreed with the government’s previous statements about the food supply chain, he did caution that the situation could change in the coming weeks. Like Stanton, he cited the movement of food down the supply chain as the biggest potential problem.

“A few weeks or a month ago we were fine,” Debgupta said. “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.”

With additional reporting by Sharon Weinberger

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

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