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MSU Expert Discusses Food Supply Chain Reliability

Brent Ross photo
Courtesy photo
MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Brent Ross is Associate Chairperson of the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Workers at meat processing plants in the U.S. are increasingly being diagnosed with COVID-19, and the chairman of Tyson Foods, John Tyson, recently referred to the food supply chain as “breaking.”

WKAR’s Scott Pohl asked MSU food supply expert Brent Ross to evaluate the safety and reliability of America’s food distribution system. In general, Ross thinks we have “a lot of food.”

BRENT ROSS: Our food system is well designed, especially for efficiency. I think where we're seeing issues right now are in areas where within those processes people are having to work in close quarters, and also in areas where we need to shift from delivering product into food service and transitioning that into retail. So, we have a food system that is well designed for efficiency, but it does take time for us to be able to move the ship and to adapt to new pathways to different markets.

SCOTT POHL: President Trump has signed an executive order declaring meatpacking to be critical infrastructure. Do you agree with the notion of referring to it as critical infrastructure, that we have that kind of system in place to get meat out to those who consume meat?

ROSS: The meatpacking industry hires a lot of people and employs a lot of people, and that's really important in terms of providing livelihoods for those individuals. I'd also say that a lot of consumers rely on those products for health and nutrition. Thinking about these things, though, we also need to be concerned about the safety and welfare of those individuals on those packing lines. I hope that is being prioritized by the industry, and I think it will be.

POHL: I wanted to ask you where you think the food supply distribution system is in good shape, and on top of that, where you think there might be weaknesses that we'll encounter.

ROSS: I'd say that there is lots of food within the food system. I think the question is on the processing side of that food, transitioning from food service markets to retail markets and breaking down those lot sizes into smaller sizes that individuals can use. The other area where we're in a good system is thinking about those kind of center aisle food products, those food products that tend to be produced using mechanization. A lot of the products that come from sources like wheat, corn, soybeans, those are highly mechanized production processes that don't require people to be in close quarters with each other often. I think those food systems in particular are in really good shape.

Where we're probably more vulnerable are in those production systems that rely heavily on labor and labor that's in close contact with each other, those production systems that are highly concentrated. Getting back to the meat sector, that is a sector that is particularly concentrated within a number of very large players, and if something happens with those individual players, that can have a significant impact on the rest of the food chain.

POHL: I had one final question about international food sources and getting those sorts of items into our system. Do you see that as being an area where there could be weakness in the weeks and months to come?

ROSS: Obviously, we're having a global response to COVID-19, and other areas of the world are also facing these same challenges. Of course, we've got to get that food product here, and that means getting that unloaded at various ports. That requires people maybe not necessarily in close contact with each other, but those tend to be longer supply chains. The more that you add in other individuals, other parts of the supply chain, there's more opportunity for that system to possibly break down.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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