A panel of leaders from across the food industry, including the CEOs of Hy-Vee, The Kroger Co., Smithfield and Tyson, along with other representatives of the U.S. farm industry, met with Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and other elected officials in Iowa last week to deliver a message of the importance of an operating U.S. food supply chain amid the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
The presentation illustrated the fragility of a disrupted supply chain brought about by the pandemic—with effects reaching from family farms to factories and the grocery store—as well as areas where the affected parties could work together to address one another’s economic distress while continuing to assure a safe and adequate supply of food.
The May 8 roundtable event, which was hosted in Hy-Vee’s hometown of West Des Moines, Iowa, and livestreamed by PBS, was overshadowed by media coverage showing footage of some executives, including Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen and Smithfield’s Ken Sullivan, being asked to remove their face coverings shortly before Pence arrived at the table. Just hours before, Pence had been informed his press secretary had tested positive for COVID-19 and after the meeting, he reportedly spent the weekend in isolation at his home.
The food industry leaders then proceeded to praise the federal government’s participation in making their workplaces safer through assistance in obtaining personal protective equipment, such as masks that they are now requiring their workers to wear. The vice president in turn praised the companies and their workers as heroes and told them their response to the pandemic would be remembered by history.
“I think this may well turn out to be your finest hour, a time when an industry stepped up and met the moment, and at some personal risk to themselves,” Pence said. “Whether it be people working in the meat processing plant or people running a cash register or people traveling around the country driving trucks, or people working in warehouses—people that have considered others more important than themselves, [have] risen to the challenge.”
The meeting took place as some meat facilities impacted by high rates of coronavirus outbreaks among workers were reopening, including a Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, that reopened last week. These plants were compelled to reopen through the imposition of the Defense Production Act by President Donald Trump late last month.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) framed the debate for farmers by noting that Americans “were nine meals away from rioting for food” and acknowledging the “economic and emotional distress” associated with farmers who’ve been forced to euthanize animals that could not get to processing facilities. “People are crying to us, ‘How come we’re losing hundreds of dollars on our cattle and the price to consumers are going up?’ It’s hard for them to understand that,” Grassley said. “There are people that should share in that distress and they ought to explain how these anomalies happen.”
Sullivan of Smithfield said he’d just gotten word that a worker at one of its plants had died of the virus before the meeting and took his time to thank employees.
“Everyone takes for granted that grocery stores should be open, police should be on the job, doctors and nurses should be on the job, but for some reason people don’t fully understand or appreciate [meatpacking plants],” he said. “It’s gut-wrenching for us as companies to have a choice between maintaining the food supply in this country and asking employees to go into plants to do that. So I just want the American people to know that the employees really deserve a lot of gratitude.”
McMullen of Kroger said the retailer was doing its part to help its suppliers manage through the “heart-wrenching” disruption by placing quantity limits on meat purchases. He also highlighted Kroger’s effort to help other business learn from its own example of operating through the pandemic.
“We were finding a lot of customers stockpiling and buying way more than was needed, so we had to put limits on it,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the plants being back open so we can take those limits off and people can get comfortable buying what’s needed and we can our supply chain working together.”
Kroger is also “very involved” in testing efforts for the coronavirus, noting the company has made agreements with Smithfield and JBS meat plants in Ohio to help them test workers at Kroger-hosted drive-up facilities. The company has also worked with Microsoft to create a technology that helps its workers assess their own need to be tested, he said.
Randy Edeker CEO of Hy-Vee, remarked upon the irony of COVID-19’s effects on a food retailing industry that was already in massive throes of change.
“On the food retail side there’s been a couple of buzzwords for some time, and that’s evolution and disruption,” he said. “Our whole business has been constantly evolving and very disrupted—and then COVID-19 happened.”
Edeker noted, however, “that from hardship and crisis can come great innovation,” saying that collaboration between parties can address aspects of the supply chain that have become points of stress in the pandemic, such as “just-in-time” inventory and a dual supply chain serving food retail and restaurant users separately. That’s been an important takeaway for Hy-Vee, which has devoted much of its energies in recent years to capturing a food-away-from-home business, which, until the pandemic struck, was outgrowing at-home channels. Edeker highlighted partnerships with foodservice distributors such as Sysco that have begun to address needs of the supermarket channel during the crisis.
Edeker predicted that “a great resourcefulness” would be one of the lasting impacts of the crisis. “We have found new efficiencies, new ways of doing things that will last and will be here forever. It will change how we do things, so I think that out of this crisis will come some good in the end.”
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