Labor shortages, SNAP cuts, trade deals: How could coronavirus affect our food supply chain?

Although U.S. shoppers concerned about the coronavirus pandemic have largely emptied stores of paper products and household cleaning supplies, so far most other grocery aisles remain stocked. Still, as the virus spreads across the U.S., it could expose other weaknesses in our food supply chain, experts say. Existing concerns, including labor shortages, cuts to public food assistance, and the farm economy’s reliance on exports, could be compounded by increased consumer demand and the specter of mass exposure to the virus.

The outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has already disrupted some routine food-related activities. The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it is suspending most inspections of foreign food manufacturers in keeping with State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel advisories. Experts say the decision could increase food safety risks.

In addition, the economic uncertainty in China, where COVID-19 originated and where thousands have contracted the virus, has cast doubt on whether the country will be able to follow through on the so-called “phase one” trade agreement it signed with the Trump administration in January. Farm commodities were a major casualty in the Sino-U.S. trade war, which cost U.S. farmers billions in exports.

The threat posed by the virus also spotlights a more systemic concern about the global nature of the U.S. farm economy, says Ben Lilliston, interim co-executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “These global chains are actually more vulnerable than locally based systems,” Lilliston said. “Our farm policy … makes us require this global market. We have to continue to export at high levels and grow exports in order for the farm economy to work. So we’re vulnerable to these kinds of disruptions.”

So far, more than 1,000 people have contracted the virus in the U.S., and experts expect that total to continue to grow dramatically. As the numbers climb, there will be more closed schools and workplaces, fewer patrons at businesses and restaurants, and canceled industry events, all of which would significantly affect economically and physically vulnerable populations, including food chain workers, who may have little or no paid sick time or health insurance.

Erin Biehl, a program officer at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, says that existing public supports like SNAP and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program can enhance public health outcomes during such crises, but only if they are appropriately funded. “[Programs like SNAP and WIC] can make us resilient,” she said, “but we have to be sure that those safety nets are being supported during this crisis time.”

The scope of those safety nets is receiving new scrutiny in the wake of the growing pandemic. In a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting on Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue confirmed that despite the COVID-19 outbreak, the USDA is moving ahead with a rule, set to take effect on April 1, that would tighten work requirements for some SNAP recipients and result in an estimated 700,000 people losing their food assistance benefits.

On Wednesday, a group of House Democrats introduced a bill that would suspend the implementation of that rule and temporarily increase spending on SNAP, among other provisions, to shore up public nutrition assistance as the virus spreads.

“I’m very concerned that the coronavirus outbreak could put a major strain on families who are already struggling to put food on the table,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts in a press release announcing the bill. “The majority of SNAP recipients who are able to work do, but they make so little that they still qualify for benefits. If they are being told to stay home for weeks at a time, this outbreak could seriously impact their access to food, leaving them hungry and with nowhere else to turn.”

Some food and farm groups have expressed concern about the pandemic’s immediate impact on food chain workers and farm sector productivity. In a letter sent to government officials on Tuesday, the National Pork Producers Council, an industry trade group, warned that the COVID-19 outbreak could exacerbate existing labor shortages on hog farms and in pork packing plants.

“[T]he COVID-19 situation could cause significant capacity shortfalls … and put daily animal care needs at risk,” wrote NPPC president Howard A.V. Roth. “School closures preventing parents from going to work are already a concern in farm and plant communities. The specter of market-ready hogs with nowhere to go is a nightmare for every pork producer in the nation. It would result in severe economic fallout in rural communities and a major animal welfare challenge.”

Still, not all industry groups are immediately concerned. The Western Growers Association, which represents produce farmers in several western states, reassured its members in an update Tuesday that transmission through food or food packaging is “highly unlikely.” At the same time, it warned that the outbreak may eventually disrupt business as usual.

As for the impact of the pandemic on food availability, there may not yet be cause for alarm. Retailers can be agile when it comes to ensuring that shoppers can find most products on store shelves, said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations at FMI, a food industry group that represents retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers.

“Certainly, supply chain pressures will arise as new cases of the virus emerge, but the supply chain is resilient,” Baker said in an email. “Shoppers may witness some out-of-stocks in a store due to sales spikes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the supply chain is short that product. Retailers have secondary inventory sources that they could tap and they are adept to do so.”

Karan Girotra, a professor at Cornell University who has studied the grocery supply chain, said that food shortages should be “very preventable with good management” during the outbreak.

“It really is a management challenge of averting panic [and] having reasonable distribution systems in place,” Girotra said. “Bottom line, it is a consumer-side problem. … All of us have a responsibility not to unnecessarily panic and horde things.”