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Food Supply Chain Is Secure: UNFI

Consumer Brands Association asks that food manufacturers be exempt from CDC gathering recommendation
Photograph by WGB staff

United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) reaffirmed the country’s supply chain is prepared to meet demand after participating in a March 15 discussion with the federal government and food industry principals.

The participants, which included more than two dozen grocery store and supply chain executives from across the country, verified they all were working hand in hand with the federal government, as well as state and local leaders, to ensure food and essentials are available as full shelves make Americans feel calm. The supply chain was noted to be secure without the need for any residents to hoard any essentials.

In addition to the normal “coordination with federal, state and local government agencies, by now collaborating directly with the White House and industry peers, we firmly believe that increased levels of public-private collaboration can further enhance UNFI's around-the-clock efforts to meet our customers current and future needs,” said said Steven Spinner, chairman and CEO of Providence, R.I.-based UNFI, the nation’s largest food distributor.

He added, “It is important for all Americans to know that they can continue to count on companies like ours to keep stores well-stocked with a variety of food and wellness products during this critical period.”

While the food supply chain in the U.S. is among the best in the world, in order to keep it strong, UNFI “asked the administration's help in encouraging responsible consumer purchasing, keeping essential and healthy associates at work, and ensuring highways and roads remain open to cargo trucks,” Spinner said.

UNFI also said it would be rolling out policies to keep its workforce of 21,000 associates healthy during the crisis.

Federal Exemption From Gathering Limitations

While the health of food workers is paramount, the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), Arlington, Va., has requested a federal mandate that exempts manufacturing facilities from gathering limits, provided they follow worker safety guidelines put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The CDC has requested that all gatherings be limited to 50 people and while businesses are exempt from the CDC suggestion, the decision to follow the recommendation is made at the local or state level.

“In some states, manufacturing facilities are already included in exemptions; in others, they are not. We appreciate the recognition of the importance of continued manufacturing. A federal exemption will create uniformity across the country and ensure the continued production of critical items,” said Bryan Zumwalt, executive vice president of public affairs for CBA.

He added, “As the association representing manufacturers producing many of the essential items required to prepare for and protect against coronavirus spread, it is critical to public health that our industry can continue—and, for high-demand items, accelerate—production.”

The CBA had also called on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for halt on global export restrictions on the materials needed to treat and prevent coronavirus as well as further protections against international hoarding of materials required to make products that maintain the health and well-being of American consumers.

“Trade relationships are critical to slowing this pandemic, yet multiple countries are responding by restricting exports of chemicals, ingredients and final products—action that will only exacerbate the risk of product shortages at a time they are needed most,” Zumwalt said.

Countries including India, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Russia have all enacted export restrictions on various chemicals, base ingredients and protective medical products in response to the coronavirus, disrupting the global supply chain and exacerbating shortages of already high-demand products.

Shift in Production

Many manufacturers are altering normal production schedules to focus on the items most in need now. “The grocery supply chain is not going to shut down,” said Doug Baker, who leads crisis management for Arlington, Va.-based FMI, the trade group representing food retailers and wholesalers, in a Reuters report. He noted that while not every size or scent of bleach will be available, the most popular varieties will still be on store shelves as manufacturers alter production to meet increased demand; the fewer products produced means the fewer changes to machinery needed and the more product that can be shipped.

Even nontraditional players are shifting manufacturing facilities to meet current consumer demand. Paris-based LVMH, the parent company of such luxury brands as Louis Vuitton, has stopped production of perfume and cosmetics and is using the equipment to make hand sanitizer that will be distributed free of charge to 39 hospitals in France. The press release noted the company will continue to manufacture the hand sanitizer for as long as needed.

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