Of the many ways in which the novel corona virus has changed American life, one of the strangest was the traditional journey to the grocery store. For many families, weekly or bi-weekly errands has turned into a nightmarish waiting game that is peppered with acute fear of infection. Rows of panicked shoppers armed with shopping carts gather around parking lots in Southern California Costcos, Safeways in Metro Washington, DC, and Publix stores in the Panhandle in Florida. Inside, some shelves are empty and some items ̵
The widespread orders for Americans to stay at home have shaken a distribution system that typically conducts about half of its energy in restaurants. Bars, arenas and schools that are now banned. Instead, almost all of the country's groceries are now being directed to grocery stores, where the demand for storage-stable foods such as pasta, flour and beans as well as household products such as toilet paper, disinfectant alcohol and handkerchiefs is increasing.
The key players in this supply chain want you to know that despite some empty shelves, it is working properly. "We're not going to run out of food," said Fred Boehler, president and CEO of Americold Logistics, a large operator of temperature-controlled trucks and warehouses. "I promise, I promise, I promise." Experts say your favorite brand may take longer to return to your favorite store.
Indeed, the stuff is moving across the country quickly. FreightWaves, a freight news and analytics company, reports that total freight volume increased 28 percent this month compared to February. "This is a record," said CEO Craig Fuller. "We have never seen this rise before."
The food supply chain begins with farmers. A lack of Chinese supplies and the growing feeling that the US-China trade war is thawing and the Chinese may be buying American goods again have caused US farmers to produce more food in recent months. Inventories are high, and data from the US Department of Agriculture, analyzed by Steiner Consulting Group, suggests that the company will produce more beef, pork, and chicken this year than any other year since 2000.
“We will don't run out of food. I promise, I promise, I promise. “
Fred Boehler, CEO of Americold Logistics
However, the way you eat this food is likely to change. Perdue Farms, one of the country's largest chicken producers, saw a significant increase in orders from retail stores such as supermarkets, as more Americans cook from home and eat less out. The company has shifted production to reflect this. It prepares smaller pieces of meat so that restaurant chefs can cut and cook themselves, and focuses more on supermarket-ready products and packaging such as smaller pieces of meat and salad bags that are ready for lunch. Last weekend, Perdue Farms added Saturday shifts at some locations and improved cleaning logs in all offices and facilities, including cafeterias and changing rooms.
Toilet paper manufacturers say production is progressing. In a statement, Georgia-Pacific, maker of the Angel Soft and Quilted Northern brands, said its facilities operate 24/7 to keep up with demand. Ultimately, however, the Americans will buy enough toilet paper when the camps become practical. "We will experience an overload in certain categories such as toilet paper that is produced but not sold," said FreightWaves' Fuller.
There are bottlenecks in the supply chain, because customers in particular have elements that have put the system into overdrive mode. Truck drivers have gone online to complain about long lines at distribution centers waiting to pick up or drop off loads.
Lineage Logistics, the country's largest cold store operator, is hiring 2,000 workers to deal with the sudden crisis. Brian Beattie, the company's senior vice president of sales, says his employees are used to suddenly going shopping before a hurricane or winter storm. "We are used to working regionally when everyone charges their pantry in a certain area, but never as globally," he says. The company hopes to attract some food service workers who have been laid off during government-mandated shutdowns.
However, the supply chains could be seriously disrupted if some of these employees get sick. On Thursday, an employee at two terminals in the port of Houston tested positive for the novel corona virus, which resulted in a one-day shutdown. Such hiccups can have serious consequences: the port deals with more than half of the containers that come through the Gulf of Mexico.
Supply chain experts see other issues related to workers across the board. As officials working to align the engine of the economy with public health concerns weigh up who should be exempted from on-site orders, consumer goods manufacturers want to ensure that their employees are allowed to come to work. Another risk: last week, the State Department announced that it would temporarily stop processing visas for seasonal workers, including some farm workers.
In the meantime, those who work on supply chains say there is little reason to panic, although public health experts have asked buyers to reduce the frequency of their trips. "I think you can relax a little," says Fuller.
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