GLOBAL PANDEMIC AND THE FRAGILE FOOD SUPPLY CHAIN

CORONAVIRUS SHOWED US THE WEAKNESS OF OUR SUPPLY CHAIN. WILL IT BE ENOUGH TO ACT?

2020 has been a crazy year. Everyone has a story about racing to the grocery store to stock up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and food for months. Unfortunately, most people also have a story about not finding the product they were looking for. The barren toilet paper aisle, the out-of-stock bread shelf, grocery store lines stretching around the block – until this year, these were all images we’d see in dystopian television. Yet it happened.

The reason why it happened is two-fold: First – the coronavirus crisis and ensuing panic. Second – an unprepared supply chain. 

To some extent, global supply chains were simply overwhelmed by the demanded volume. But the problem goes deeper than that. Modern supply chains are woefully unprepared to facilitate communication across their points. Many supply chains (including and especially food) still operate like a game of telephone, with each point relaying a message to the consecutive point. This creates a disjointed, slow-to-react supply line.

The problem only gets worse when details are needed. Incredibly, many food supply chain points still rely on paper records and non-networked computers.

Even if fluid communication between supply chain points does happen, the supply chain players still have an incredibly difficult time adapting to demand. This problem goes beyond farming. Slaughterhouses often don’t know the exact number of animals coming in. Processing plants can’t easily adapt to a new output volume. Shipping companies have a difficult time changing their trucking schedule. These bottlenecks only get worse in crisis.

PANDEMIC VULNERABILITY

This supply chain lethargy means consumers are at risk. If the supply chain can’t communicate or adapt, food born illness outbreaks pose an enormous threat.

In the wake of COVID, research by the FAIRR Initiative showed a rather grim picture. They conducted analyses of the world’s 60 largest meat, dairy, and fish companies, rating them on metrics “vital to preventing future zoonotic pandemics,” including food safety, worker safety, animal welfare, biodiversity, and antibiotic usage.  

FAIRR found that between factory farms and obscured supply chains, 73% of the food companies presented a high risk for pandemic based on an “inability to prevent the emergence of new zoonotic diseases.”

This report is a wake-up call, but not shocking. As mentioned above, paper trails and bottlenecks have long been pain points, even in modern times. It can still take months to track a contaminated product back to its source, if it’s even possible at all. 

FIXING WHAT’S BROKEN

Part of the solution is enacting better food safety protocols and training at the source. Increasing vaccinations for animals and workers, utilizing more sanitary practices, and moving away from the factory farm model could all help in preventing contamination. Farmers and food producers should also cultivate a better digital picture of what’s going on in their farms with improved testing, field surveillance, and animal tracking. (In addition to improving the supply chain, this can often increase profit margins per unit sold for farmers)

The other part of the solution is transparency and communication. Not only do farmers need to know what’s going on in their fields and facilities, but that information also needs to be relayed down the supply chain and integrated with data from slaughter houses, processing plants, distribution centers, and retail. This team work creates a supply chain that can function as a singular, agile unit, with better efficiency, transparency, and safety.

With digitization and integration in place, the next time the supply chain is shocked, we’ll be ready for it.

Interested in digitizing and integrating your supply chain data? Let’s talk more

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