Two topics of interest to average people appear in headlines. The first is a report the food manufacturing industry might run out of PPE; the second is a remarkable shift by WalMart for shoppers in a new response to COVID-19.
First, there’s a hyped-up report about the food manufacturing industry possibly facing a shortage of gloves and masks as the nationwide PPE shortage continues. [SEE HERE]
However, there is nothing to be alarmed about in that report.
“I want to assure you that our food supply chain is sound,” Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, said on March 20.
That, however, could change if the people who make, package and deliver food lack personal protective equipment, or PPE, including face masks and gloves, according to the internal document shared with Yahoo News. (Link)
The three common PPE needs in food processing are: (1) hair restraints; (2) masks, and (3) gloves. All food manufacturing and processing is regulated and inspected by the FDA and USDA. The issues of mask and glove shortages are not critical within the industry. Under the current National Emergency guidelines the USDA can modify regulations to keep the food supply-chain flowing without any health risk at all.
Most industrial food production is automated now. The human element is not as influential as it once was. Additionally, due to their purpose, masks can be modified to any facial covering; it is more convenient, but not critical that particular masks be worn.
Gloves are not as important as hand washing, and any industrial food sanitation expert will tell you that gloves are mostly a public relations issue. Frequent hand washing in food processing is far more valuable, even preferred, to the wearing of gloves. Hair covering is not in short supply, and if that ever became critical there are alternate options possible with modified interim USDA guidelines.
The U.S. has the greatest food production safety standards in the world. Food-borne illnesses are rarely an issue of manufacturing or processing. 90 percent of food-borne issues (ecoli) are related to fresh products (lettuce, potatoes, melons, row crops). The processing issues of botulism, salmonella and listeria are very rare with modern strict protocols. It would be exceptionally rare, almost impossible, for a food-borne pathogen to come from a PPE issue. Stunningly so.
Nothing related to PPE will interfere with the food safety of Americans; and no shortage of PPE would ever impede the food supply chain. There are shortages of raw material and supplies that might be a problem; but PPE is not a critical component within industrial food supplies; and all PPE regulations can be modified easily to avoid disruption.
On the second report, it is actually quite remarkable to see WalMart, the world’s largest retailer, modify shopping rules with very deliberate limits on customer density:
WalMart – Starting Saturday, we will limit the number of customers who can be in a store at once. Stores will now allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time, roughly 20 percent of a store’s capacity.
To manage this restriction, the associates at a store will mark a queue at a single-entry door (in most cases the Grocery entrance) and direct arriving customers there, where they will be admitted one-by-one and counted. Associates and signage will remind customers of the importance of social distancing while they’re waiting to enter a store – especially before it opens in the morning.
Once a store reaches its capacity, customers will be admitted inside on a “1-out-1-in” basis. (read more)
The average WalMart Supercenter is 200,000 sq ft. 5 per 1,000/sq ft would mean a limit of 1,000 people at any one time total store. The average WalMart Neighborhood store is 40,000 sq ft. That would mean a limit of 200 people at any one time total store.
Big Picture– Most consumers are not aware total food consumption in the U.S. was a 60/40 proposition. Approximately 60% of all food was consumed “outside the home” (or food away from home), and 40% of all food consumed was food “inside the home” (traditional grocery shoppers).
Food ‘outside the home’ included: restaurants, fast-food locales, schools, corporate cafeterias, university lunchrooms, manufacturing cafeterias, hotels, food trucks, park and amusement food sellers and many more. Many of those venues are not thought about when people evaluate the overall U.S. food delivery system; however, this network was approximately 60 percent of all food consumption on a daily basis.
The ‘food away from home‘ channel has its own supply chain. Very few restaurants and venues (cited above) purchase food products from retail grocery outlets. As a result of the coronavirus mitigation effort the ‘food away from home’ channel has been reduced by more than half of daily food delivery operations. However, people still need to eat.
That means retail food outlets, grocers, are seeing sales increases of 25 to 50 percent, depending on the area. This, along with some panic shopping, is the reason why supermarkets are overwhelmed and their supply chain is out of stock on many items.
There is enough food capacity in the overall food supply chain, and no-one should worry about the U.S. ever running out of the ability to feed itself. However, the total food supply chain is based on two channels: food at home and food away from home.
The seismic shift toward ‘food at home‘ is what has caused the shortages, and that supply chain is not likely to recover full service of products again until the ‘food away from home’ sector gets back to normal. No need to panic, but there will be long-term shortages.
There are going to be category driven empty shelves, and many varieties of items will remain out of stock. Manufacturers are focusing on the top most-demanded items within their portfolios; they will not restart all varieties of products until production capacity on their top branded items drop to a manageable level.
Toilet paper is two sides of a slightly different product, commercial and consumer channels. Commercial TP demand is down 40% while consumer TP demand is up 40%. The TP you use at home is not the same as the stuff you used at the office, school, restaurant, public restroom etc. Both products manufactured differently; both packaged differently; both manufactured to fit different dispensing equipment.
Consumer (home use) TP sales now up 40% in demand. The industrial, big roll, individually wrapped, less appealing commercial TP not-so-much. That is likely why the lack of toilet tissue has remained for so long… Similar for paper towels. Who knew.
Big manufacturing soap and chemical users have also been challenged with the extreme demand for sanitary products. Hand soap, hand sanitizing, personal hygiene and also surface sanitizing products are beyond extreme demand. Here I would place a note of caution… Again, prioritization has to happen.
When given a choice between laundry/dish detergent and personal hygiene products we can expect the manufacturers will prioritize production of the latter first.
This *could* lead to a shortage in laundry and dish soaps. Just keep that in mind if you are seeing some of your favorite brands in those sectors missing.
Think of a massive segment within our economy that was already working near capacity…. now demand has increased 40% overall within that industry…. It’s incredible we have not seen more widespread shortages considering the scale of this increase.