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The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated long-standing threats to food supply chains, including those related to supply chain continuity, food fraud and theft, and food safety and security. Farmers, producers, distributors, and retailers have, nonetheless, prevailed and worked to maintain the integrity of the global food supply. However, additional steps can be taken to mitigate threats to food supply chains.

Supply Chain Continuity

Stockpiling, panic buying and food insecurity were rampant in 2020 in response to the sudden onset of the pandemic and are continuing to some extent in 2021 amidst drawn-out economic uncertainty. These trends, coupled with illness-related food plant closures and growth in unemployment among food sector workers, have been causing food shortages. Companies can implement the following practices to bolster operations as the pandemic wanes:

  • Seek out agricultural subsidies – To stay operational, small farmers and producers should work with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and local FSA offices to secure funds when possible.
  • Maintain a sufficient workforce to keep distribution channels alive – Large producers and distributors can hire and board out-of-state drivers and use staffing agencies and other middlemen as a way to mitigate the effects of the nationwide worker and driver shortage.
  • Optimize capacity in accordance with shifting demand – To avoid product shortages, producers, distributors and retailers can increase operating hours, hire more employees, reduce product variety to focus on the most popular stock-keeping units (SKUs) and simplify inventory management.
  • Strengthen international sourcing practices – Large producers can also avoid product shortages by exploring alternative and international supply sources. In doing so, producers can tap into new supplies when existing resources are depleted or compromised by transport and logistics disruptions.
  • Promote cyber awareness – Finally, all food suppliers should keep their industrial control system (ICS) up to date, use cybersecurity staff (instead of manufacturing and processing personnel) to manage the ICS, conduct end-to-end cybersecurity assessments and update incident response plans to protect against data breaches, shutdowns and the increasing frequency of ransomware attacks on food processing operations.

Food Fraud & Theft

Food fraud, in which substandard food products are produced and distributed to consumers, also remains a primary concern. As authorities focus their attention and funding on coronavirus relief, gaps in regulatory enforcement are contributing to an increased likelihood of food fraud, particularly through the amendment of food labels or expiration dates and the use of substandard alternative ingredients.

Furthermore, as inventory levels have fallen, essential goods such as food products have been subject to spikes in demand and prices during the past pandemic year. These characteristics expose food products to a greater likelihood of theft, which has been on the rise since the pandemic began. Due to the influence of bad actors, stolen food products are at a higher risk of food safety violations. As a result, it’s important to protect against such threats by considering the following measures:

  • Implement food fraud prevention systems – To hedge against fraud and maintain control measures, producers, distributors and retailers can conduct evaluations aimed at characterizing food fraud vulnerabilities. Then, these stakeholders can design and implement mitigation strategies based on those vulnerabilities that allow them to keep track of input materials, risks and vendor relationships.
  • Ensure suppliers’ compliance with food integrity practices – Buyers should only work with suppliers that have documented anti-fraud processes in place. To determine such processes, buyers can ask if any ingredients have been substituted with less expensive alternatives. Buyers should also ask about the geographical and biological source of the ingredients to avoid the recycling of animal byproducts back into the supply chain and the purchasing of products with unknown origins or past “use by” dates.
  • Promote increased regulatory compliance – To demonstrate social responsibility, distributors, retailers, and buyers can lobby for bans on illicit trading, profiteering and hoarding.
  • Take measures to prevent internal theft – Distributors and retailers can deter employees from internal theft by tracking all sales and inventory; keeping alcohol and other high-value products under lock and key; installing security cameras, verified alarm systems and managed access control systems; offering staff free or discounted products and examining storage areas for food that may have been stashed away for later removal.

Food Safety & Security

Due in part to rampant food fraud and theft during the pandemic, food safety and security have become even more important. That said, federal agencies have had limited capacity, in terms of both funding and time, with which to enforce food safety regulations and manage potential violations. Moreover, supply chain factors including limited container, warehouse and other storage space make for an increased risk of distribution challenges that elevate consumers’ risk of facing food insecurity. To increase food safety and security, those along the food supply chain can:

  • Overhaul processes to improve quality at every stage – From raw ingredients to finished products, it’s important to ensure that safety and security standards, including those related to food preparation, testing, labeling, packaging, storage and distribution, are consistently reached. Food controls should be based on a sound scientific foundation, and hazard analyses should be carefully conducted (e.g., inspection personnel should be properly trained).
  • Target efforts toward vulnerable groups – Another way to increase food safety and security is for producers, retailers, and buyers to contribute to food safety nets, including the direct provision of food to vulnerable communities through donations and the indirect provision of food through food stamps, coupons, and local funds. Also, linking farmers and restaurants to food banks is a way to increase such efforts. The biggest risk for food security is not with food availability but with consumers’ access to food.
  • Expand the use of new purchase and delivery methods – To be more efficient and reduce strain on essential operations, retailers and buyers can employ local sourcing (i.e., a tighter, shorter supply chain), use click-and-collect models and services and offer nonconventional food items (i.e., grocery products in restaurants). Farmers can also use digital solutions to sell directly to consumers.
  • Keep emergency solutions in mind – If a food supplier is having trouble distributing products, the supplier should contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) National Business Emergency Operations center to secure emergency funds and resources.

The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities for many industries, but food supply chains particularly so. As food supply chains recover from the effects of the pandemic, it’s important to reflect on what can be done better. In other words, moving forward, those along food supply chains have a chance to rescale and reimagine the future of food. For all its challenges, the past pandemic year has triggered a variety of creative innovations; let’s not stop now.

 

By: Ayanna Leaphart & Mara Michael

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