Empty shelves, full fields


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: a kink in the food supply chain.

During recent visits to your local supermarket, you may have noticed some shortages. And no, I’m not just talking about toilet paper.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Milk and egg coolers are half full. Meat selections are sparse. And you’ll find limits on items in high demand.

That might make you think America is running low on food. But as WORLD reporter Sarah Schweinsberg tells us, the opposite is true.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Ryan Talley and his family grow a cornucopia of fruits and veggies west of Bakersfield, California. 

TALLEY: We grow lemons and avocados. In our row crop division, we grow cilantro, spinach, Napa, bell peppers.  

This time of year they’re harvesting spinach, cilantro, and Napa cabbage. Ryan Talley says the coronavirus is changing how they work. 

TALLEY: Before COVID-19, we used harvest aides, but now we are harvesting all by hand just so we can keep our social distancing. 

Even with the changes slowing down production, Talley Farms is still reaping an abundance of food to distribute to supermarkets. 

But across the country, other growers are letting crops rot in the fields or donating them to food banks. Many usually sell to restaurants, hotels, schools, and food service companies. With those outlets closed, there’s no one to buy their fruits and vegetables. Talley says even a short harvest delay can be devastating. 

TALLEY: The crops that we grow are highly perishable. So even a week or two, or three weeks to a month, a little hiccup in the process can be detrimental to us in the specialty crop business…  

Lane Cohee is a professor of business management at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He says the coronavirus has caused a big hiccup across the whole food supply chain.

COHEE: You’re seeing a supply chain try to adapt and it’s, I’ll use the word choppy. And so you see uneven availability.

Before COVID-19, on average, Americans ate out nearly six times a week. Now, people are buying more groceries. That means food producers have to transition from restaurants to supplying supermarkets. Not a fast process.

COHEE: That wholesale supplier relationship may not exist directly with the grocer, so it’s also a new supplier relationship that needs to be established. 

And probably the biggest hang up? Packaging. 

Mark Stephenson is a dairy policy analyst at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He says dairy processing plants are usually geared toward creating a very specific product. For some that’s 50 pound bags of shredded cheese, stacks of sliced American cheese, or large blocks of butter… all for restaurants.

It isn’t easy for those factories to change to supermarket-sized portions.

STEPHENSON: Consumers don’t wanna buy 10-pound bags of cheese in the grocery store. We want maybe a pound or a half pound. 

And it isn’t easy for factories that do supply grocery stores to quickly ramp up production. 

STEPHENSON: Beverage milk sales just shot up, took off. But those are completely different plants, and they aren’t located in the same places, so we had to do a great deal of shuffling to move milk from one kind of plant, and into new or different kinds of plants.

The drop in restaurant sales really hurts. Right now the dairy industry can’t use 10 percent of the milk it produces. That hits dairy farmers in the wallet. 

Meat producers are also struggling. Dozens of meat packing plants are closed or have reduced production because of coronavirus outbreaks among employees. 

Lee Schulz is a livestock economist at Iowa State. He says with the closures, there is 25 to 30 percent less pork being processed. 

The plant closures and decreased demand is walloping hog producers. 

SCHULZ: This is a dire situation. We haven’t seen these price levels in decades really…

But Schulz says consumers don’t need to worry about a pork shortage. Processing plants put a certain amount of product into freezers. Some of that meat is now being distributed for sale. 

SCHULZ: You might not be able to find a particular cut or the particular product that you’re used to buying but you’ll be able to find pork, you’ll be able to find beef. You’ll be able to find poultry. 

John Robinson is with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He says restaurants used to buy nearly half of the beef in the United States. That meat production is still happening, but it isn’t ready for the grocery store. 

ROBINSON: It’s not labeled for retail sale, it’s not cut for retail sale. It doesn’t have nutrition information on the package. So it definitely takes some doing to redirect products. 

In the meantime, ranchers are also taking a price hit. 

Everyone I spoke with agreed COVID-19 could change the food supply chain for a long time to come. The University of Wisconsin’s Mark Stephenson says it may need to become more flexible. 

STEPHENSON: So maybe these plants begin to think about diversifying their line up or their customers a little bit. The other thing is that we’ve discovered all of our supply chain is “just in time” inventory. Works great when everything is normal, but as soon as we get a hiccup like we’ve had here… that exposes some of our weaknesses.

Iowa State’s Lee Schulz says the coronavirus outbreaks at packing plants could lead them to use more automated machinery.

SCHULZ: This may spur some research and development into more automation at the processing level.

But industry insiders also agree that there’s no need for consumer panic.

Palm Beach Atlantic’s Lane Cohee insists we don’t have food shortage. Just a supply chain in flux. 

COHEE: If I were to make an estimate over the next year to 18 months, we’re gonna see this supply chain continue to try to adapt to this new model.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


(Photo/iStock)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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