US food supply chain at risk because coronavirus impacts

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(CNN) — The meat supply is at risk. Farm workers are in fear. It’s hard to get groceries.

Health professionals — doctors, nurses and everyone down the line — are the rightful and obvious heroes of the pandemic, but if this dark episode has taught us anything about the way we live today, it could be that our society rests on the backs of a lot of people who cannot simply stay home and chill while the coronavirus blows through.

Food workers are front-line workers too — You probably saw the headline recently that one of the largest hog processing plants in the country had ceased production for the foreseeable future. The reason? Employees at the plant, a Smithfield operation, account for about half of the coronavirus cases in South Dakota.

Similar closures have hit plants in Pennsylvania and Iowa and the CEO of Smithfield said the country’s meat supply is at risk.

Are shortages coming? Yes, if we panic — We’ve already seen runs on toilet paper and cleaning products. Will people stockpile bacon in their freezers if they fear a pork shortage? Please don’t. The US is not running out of meat. It’s not that there’s no meat. It’s that, at the moment, there are gaps in the way we process it and get it to consumers.

Keeping the supply chain going while also keeping farmworkers and meat cutters, along with packers and truck drivers and warehouse workers and grocery stockers and checkout clerks, healthy is one priority.

Another problem is finding ways to get food to consumers, now that restaurants, office canteens, school cafeterias and so many other places people used to go eat are closed. The current situation is this: Farmers are dumping food, including milk, even as people grow increasingly desperate and lines grow at food banks.

“It is a cascading series of events here that is disrupting the entire food chain,” said Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served as secretary of agriculture during the Obama administration, in an interview with CNN on Monday. “You start ending school lunch programs, universities shut down, food service shuts down, tourism and hotels have low occupancy and at the end of the day you have a tremendous amount of the overall supply of food having to be redirected.”

He said the government will need to spend money to buy food from growers and give it to food banks.

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