Farmers and dairy producers across the country are dumping huge loads of cheese, milk, eggs and fresh vegetables into dug-out pits because bulk demand has dried up at American restaurants. Elsewhere, food banks are running short of supplies. Countries in the developing world are bracing for shortages as available supplies diminish. Fixing a food-supply chain badly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic could soon test political leaders’ crisis-management skills in ways they never imagined.
Most Americans probably have taken for granted the complex supply chain that takes food from the farm and delivers it in neat packaging to grocery stores or in bulk to restaurants and processing plants. But this system doesn’t run on autopilot. It requires lots of largely immigrant labor, along with shipping and production handoffs intricately timed to ensure fresh food gets to consumers before it rots. The pandemic has created major kinks in that chain.
Part of the problem is rooted in shutdowns or reconfigurations at food-processing plants, where workers typically are crowded close together on production lines, as social-distancing practices are imposed. Coronavirus cases recently skyrocketed at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where more than 500 employees have tested positive — a situation that belies President Donald Trump’s assertion that rural areas of the country should be safe to get back to work. A single employee’s infection has been linked to more than 125 other cases. The Smithfield plant, which employs 3,700, is now closed.