How the Food Supply Chain Survived the Early Days of the 2020 Pandemic

How the Food Supply Chain Survived the Early Days of the 2020 Pandemic
Market hogs had diets adjusted during the early days of the pandemic to slow weight gain while the supply chain adjusted.

Kevin Sheehan is the Director of Processor Engagement for the National Pork Board.  Kevin is a 30+ year meat industry veteran and spent 26 years with Cargill.  He was Vice President of Pork Livestock Procurement for Cargill as well as Vice President of Retail Business Management for Cargill's poultry division.

I met him for the first time on one of the Pork Board’s weekly Zoom calls during those first scary weeks of the 2020 pandemic. His insights were invaluable, and he evoked a steady calm and a hopeful tone as our fresh food supply chain went through the gyrations in those first months of lockdown.

Since then, all of us are learning so much all along the food supply chain. We have more intimate knowledge of the farm gate to family plate than ever before. The hope is our food supply chain can be more agile. Here’s why.

Arizona Agriculture : The complexity of the food supply chain certainly has challenges. What makes the fresh product supply chain so unique and explain, besides the obvious, why it’s so delicate? 

Sheehan : While we often talk about one national supply chain of pork, the reality is that the U.S. food system is made up of smaller regional and local supply chains that are very finely balanced and built around?"just in time" inventory systems. Because of the “just-in-time” nature of the system, farmers must work the same way. For hog farmers, they’re working up to a year ahead to make sure they have a plan for sow breeding, farrowing, weaning, growing and delivering hogs to the processor. And it’s planned out pretty meticulously, because there are more pigs coming right behind.   

Because the system is built around efficiency, most business up and down the supply chain (from processors to brokers to retail and food service operations) only have storage capacity for a few days’ supply. When something like a large-scale restaurant closure, shelter-in-place orders, panic buying, or a processing plant closure happens, it has a major impact on the system. When all those things happen simultaneously like it did during the early stages of the pandemic, it throws the system into temporary disarray.  Fortunately, we had talented people working up and down the supply chain to find creative solutions to keep meat -and other consumer goods - available to consumers. 

Arizona Agriculture : Plants look so different today than what they did just a few months ago. As a result of the pandemic, explain what plants have had to do to protect workers and keep plants running at 75% to 95% capacity? 

Sheehan : Plants look a bit different for sure. Sanitation was a priority long before coronavirus, but now you’re seeing more personal protective equipment like face masks and face shields.  Plexiglass dividers have been installed on many plant floors between workstations.  

Giving workers more space to social distance when they’re not on the line means changes to break rooms, locker rooms and cafeterias, and those non-production areas are being cleaned and sanitized more frequently.  We’re also seeing plants staggering work shifts, lunch and break times so fewer people are in one place at the same time.  And several companies are prescreening employees prior to their shifts looking for employees who have a temperature or signs of illness.   

Arizona Agriculture : Of course, the toughest part of this whole experience has been pork producers having to depopulate their herds. How is the industry working to mitigate the financial and emotional devastation to producers? 

Sheehan : Once we saw the impact the coronavirus was having on the supply chain, the Pork Board started communicating with pig farmers about the resources available to them. This included education on how to slow down growth with a "hold diet" to keep hogs from getting too big.  We developed overstocking recommendations and, in some cases, assistance in finding other places to house hogs.

The goal of course, was to help producers avoid the possibility of herd depopulation, which is absolutely a last resort. However, once depopulation became a reality for some farmers, we were there with resources to help them make a very difficult decision in the right way by identifying who needed to be notified and which processes were approved and appropriate based on where the farm was located. Moreover, the Pork Board helped with resources around emotional support for animal caregivers. 

 

Says Kevin Sheehan the food supply chain has been forthright and transparent

with what has been happening in their industry even in the midst of its ups and downs during the pandemic.

 

 

Arizona Agriculture : You mentioned back in May on a Zoom call that innovation will come out of this crisis. Talk about this.  

Sheehan : We are still early in the process to determine what specific innovations will occur long term for the industry, but what you’ll likely see are changes to workspace, sanitizing, distancing and personal protective equipment. 

Certainly, there will be advances in automation and changes to employee safety and health protocols. 

Arizona Agriculture : We hear that while some industries might have a more transparent supply chain, the food supply chain is not as transparent and seamless as it could be. The pandemic highlighted this. What’s the fix? Is it in part because of all the links in the chain and are there ways to streamline this? 

Sheehan : The food supply chain has been fairly forthright and transparent with what has been happening in their industry.  Just like everyone else, the food industry was learning about COVID-19 and how to best deal with it as the issues progressed.  There was no playbook for this, and I think that you see a different world today than six months ago. The food industry adapted to the immediacy of the challenge quite well, and there will be long-term changes to the industry based on what we learned and experienced. 

Arizona Agriculture : Beyond the bottlenecks the pandemic created, what role can you see the producers (farmers and ranchers) serving to advance supporting a streamlined supply chain in the food industry? 

Sheehan : The pandemic clearly demonstrated what we all learned in our Marketing 101 classes: when something happens at any point in the supply chain, it has effects in both directions.  

For farmers and ranchers, I think this reinforces the importance of finding alternative outlets for livestock.  It’s not just, “What’s Plan B?” but “What’s Plan C and D?”  

Arizona Agriculture : Touching on a hot button issue, the White House and Congress have called for an investigation into possible collusion between the major meat packing plants. What’s your take? 

Sheehan : The Pork Board is focused on education, research and promotion of pork worldwide. That’s where we best serve the producers who pay the Pork Checkoff and the industry as a whole. 

Arizona Agriculture : If the price-point for investing in a local or regional packing plant (whether for beef or pork or any other type of livestock) can be overcome, what kind of landscape might we see? And, would this also mitigate the bottlenecks we’ve witnessed as a result of this pandemic? 

Sheehan : We’ve certainly seen producers become investors in smaller regional packing plants and production systems, and there are many reasons why producers take this approach.  While more plants mean more marketing options for producers in a normal operating environment, global pandemics don’t discriminate by size of employer. Plants of all sizes were affected by the coronavirus. 

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