How Coronavirus Is Shaking Our Food Supply

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What’s happening? In late March, shoppers across Europe and the U.S. emptied grocery store shelves, but articles abounded to reassure them that the food supply chain was extremely strong. As the pandemic drags on, however, that’s becoming a less solid guarantee: Worker shortages, plant closures, the virus spreading among food producers and other, less obvious supply chain strains are starting to add up.


A shopper is seen in the pasta aisle of a supermarket in Bethesda, Maryland on March 16, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Source Getty

Why does it matter? From fields to processing plants to ports to grocery stores, every step of the journey from farm to table is being shaken up by the virus. More than 37 million people in America are already considered food insecure — and that total is expected to rise, with a new report predicting that the number of food insecure children in the U.S. soon will be driven to a new high of 18 million. So upsets to the food supply could mean an existential threat to millions. Around the world, it’s predicted to be even worse, with the U.N. this week warning of famines of “biblical” proportions.  


Don’t raise a glass. With gas demand massively down in the U.S., ethanol producers have ramped down production — and thus the byproduct of ethanol, carbon dioxide, isn’t being made. Production has dropped by 20 percent and could fall as much as 50 percent, some predict. That’s bad news for producers of beer and sodas, who use it to make their beverages bubbly. Small brewers may have to shut down — or turn to old-fashioned processes no longer widely used, like allowing yeast to convert sugar to carbon dioxide. Another concern about the CO2 shortage: It’s used in water treatment, and though utilities are considered essential and given priority, there could be future shortages.

Essential Farm Workers Continue Work As Florida Agriculture Industry Struggles During Coronavirus Pandemic

An aerial view from a drone shows farm workers as they fill up bins in the back of a truck with zucchini as they harvest on the Sam Accursio & Son’s Farm on April 01, 2020 in Florida City, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Elbow to elbow. Dozens of U.S. meat processing plants have been forced into temporary shutdowns as workers are infected and long-standing processing methods make social distancing impossible. Some plants, like Georgia’s Gold Creek Foods, have reportedly shifted the responsibility to workers, threatening to fire them if they don’t show up to work even with symptoms. While experts say there’s no danger of empty meat shelves yet, it’s a volatile situation.

Farm to table. At least half of America’s crop hands are estimated to be undocumented immigrants, who were notably left out of the federal coronavirus relief package passed last month. But workers are often forced to live in crowded conditions, meaning they’re at high risk of contracting and transmitting the virus. Meanwhile, farmers across the country say that without the schools, restaurants and hotels they normally sell to, they’re being forced to dump crops and milk unconsumed due to a lack of alternative supply chains. While some are able to donate, that’s complicated by the sheer volume of excess. President Donald Trump’s new immigration ban does exempt farmworkers — and he’s not the only one making exceptions, as Germany and the U.K. fly in planeloads of agricultural workers from Eastern Europe despite travel bans.


Coronavirus at Smithfield Pork Plant: The Untold Story Behind America’s Biggest Outbreak, by Jessica Lussenhop on the BBC

“The closure of a large meat processing facility like the one in Sioux Falls causes massive upstream disruption, stranding farmers without a place to sell their livestock.” 

Coronavirus Versus the Last Grocer in Town, by Valerie Bauerlein in the WSJ

“Any sneeze makes Mr. Timberlake flinch. He worries that if one of his workers got sick he would have to ask the rest of his employees to self-quarantine for two weeks. If that happened, food would spoil, and bills would go unpaid.”


Food Supply Fears Rise as Virus Forces Processing Plants to Close

“Any plants or factory across the country could become the number one hot spot next week if they do not take this issue seriously.” 

Watch on CBS News on YouTube:

Coronavirus Threatens to Disrupt Global Food Supplies, Cause Starvation

“Globally, the U.N. warns 130 million could face starvation by the end of the year.” 

Watch on Bloomberg on YouTube:


The new bodega. Restaurants, hard hit by the pandemic even when they aren’t forced to close, have begun selling their raw ingredients straight to customers, essentially becoming the new grocery stores. And it’s not just local neighborhood cafés — Subway and Panera Bread have gotten in on the action too.

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