May 20, 2020

Food Safety, Security, and Defense in a Pandemic

Just a few months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. As of April 17, 2020, the virus had spread to 185 countries, infecting more than 2.2 million people worldwide. By the time you read this, those numbers will have increased even more. SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has disrupted our society, crashed economies, broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces around the world.

A global pandemic of this scale did not come as a surprise for many health experts who have been saying that the United States was not prepared for a pandemic. Pandemics can have several impacts and test the resilience of not just the most modern heath care systems, but also of food supply chain systems.

With globalization, the food supply chain has become very complex. The movement of food from farm to fork is not as simple as it once was. Every step in the food supply chain must function properly to maintain the system working well, otherwise the whole supply chain is affected.

After the world first became aware of the full extent of the coronavirus situation in China, news reports focused on how the lack of exports from China was affecting businesses worldwide. When the outbreak in China became a pandemic, companies started focusing on supply chain diversity from a risk management perspective to ensure production could continue even if one supply pipeline is substantially reduced or completely shuts down.

In an April 17, 2020, Market Watch report, Mark Allen, chief executive of the International Foodservice Distributors Association, stated that the $3 billion foodservice industry had seen a decline of 60 to 90 percent due to COVID-19. The reduced foodservice demand is a direct result of actions taken to mitigate this disease such as closures of restaurants and schools. Changing from producing and processing food items for foodservice clients to preparing food for retail sales has also been a difficult and long process for food producers and manufacturers.

According to the 2015 article, “How Resilient is the United States’ Food System to Pandemics,” there are alarming gaps in preparedness, and the authors highlight the need to improve the resilience of our food system. Given that resilience refers to the ability to prepare for, withstand, and recover from a disruption or crisis—our food supply system is being tested.

Using a system dynamics model to demonstrate the likely effects of a pandemic on the USA’s food system, a severe pandemic with greater than a 25 percent reduction in labor availability can create significant and widespread food shortages. At the time I am writing this article, no food shortages have been reported. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated that the United States does not have a food shortage issue, but instead that it has a distribution and demand issue. However, the fact that most produce businesses are part of a global supply chain raises questions about the resilience of the food supply in the United States.

To improve the resilience of the food supply, a comprehensive approach that addresses food safety, food defense and food security must be implemented. This starts with the ability to access sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs and maintain a healthy lifestyle (Food Security). Ironically, more and more food is being imported into the United States, challenging that ability. In addition, while a globalized food supply can bring new opportunities, it can also bring challenges related to the protection of food products from intentional contamination or adulteration (Food Defense) and from unintentional contamination (Food Safety).

In order to implement a comprehensive approach that enhances the resilience of our food supply, future risk management planning should take into consideration food safety, security and defense scenarios to define the best practices moving forward.

For instance, considering food safety: Workers’ health is a central part of every food safety program where practices are implemented to ensure workers do not contaminate food. However, most of us, did not fully consider the extra mitigation measures necessary to protect workers from infecting each other at such scale. While current hygiene practices—handwashing, cleaning and sanitation—support both food safety and workers’ safety, the produce industry has had to adjust to implement extra mitigation measures.

And what about food defense? Now, it may be easier to imagine potential large-scale threats that could significantly alter daily activities and people worldwide if they were applied to our food system. The lesson to note here is that situations derived from large-scale threats should be considered when conducting a vulnerability assessment and evaluation of a food defense plan, and food defense practices should be applied through the entire food supply chain.

When it comes to food security, it is much easier to see how food availability and choice were affected by the pandemic. When countries started shutting their borders to prevent infected persons from entering, food imports and exports were also interrupted. Grocery stores that had long abandoned the practice of keeping large inventories in warehouse storage, scrambled to secure new shipments of shelf-stable and paper products. With the uncertainty around food availability, some produce companies experienced decreased sales as customers shifted purchases away from perishable fruits and vegetables to shelf-stable products. Ironically, they abandon what many scientists recognize as the best medicine in the world, a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.

What each company learns from this pandemic experience, and the changes that will be made going forward, may differ, but let’s use lessons learned to improve and strengthen our food supply chain. We should be taking a holistic approach that includes food safety, security and defense to be better prepared for the next unexpected event.