Driver Shortage May Threaten Food Supply
Grocery store shoppers continue to pack their carts in response to the coronavirus pandemic, forcing chains like Harris Teeter and Walmart to set earlier closing times to restock their shelves. Food industry executives assure the public there is no food shortage, but that doesn’t mean the coronavirus poses no threat to the food system. As the pandemic persists, labor shortages in transportation and other areas of the food industry could soon prove to be a problem to food supply.
There’s Plenty of Food Supply
First, the good news. Andrew Novakovic, agricultural economist at Cornell University, agrees with the many food industry experts and government officials who say there is plenty of food. “This isn’t a supply chain disruption,” Novakovic says of the current pandemic. Though the U.S. food system is frequently criticized for being too big and too monolithic, its size and expediency, including crop surpluses, mean the U.S. has plenty of food available for the long haul.
At the same time, Novakovic points to a number of weak spots in the food transportation system that could be aggravated by the increased demand for food. Transportation is the one thing that connects all stages of the supply chain, he says, from farm to food processing to warehouse to grocery store. That’s why any labor shortage in the food system, but especially a shortage of truck drivers, could pose a serious threat to the food supply chain if the high demand for groceries continues unabated.
The rapid global spread of COVID-19 means few answers and lots of uncertainty across all industries, unfortunately, and that includes food production. While many are hoping the spread of the virus will slow by the end of the summer, it’s impossible to know for sure. “What kind of shape we’re going to be in the fall remains to be seen,” Novakovic cautions.
The exact nature of the labor shortage in the trucking industry is also tricky to assess. There isn’t widespread agreement about whether there even is a truck driver shortage, for example. When the shortage was first widely reported in 2018, some experts, including officials at the Department of Labor, suggested that there wasn’t actually a truck driver shortage, and that the claims were an industry push to remove regulations related to driver safety and long haul trucking, like mandated breaks during driving assignments.
American Trucking Association spokesman Sean McNally says that he’s not heard anything about the COVID-19 crisis exacerbating a truck driving shortage. “Trucks are still moving and delivering to grocery stores,” he says.
Novakovic is aware of the debate about whether there truly is a truck driver shortage, but he cautions that the key is to distinguish between long-haul and short-haul truck drivers. While many companies have no trouble hiring truck drivers for shorter distance gigs at a few hours at a time, employers have long been struggling to find drivers who can be away for days or even weeks. “Trucking companies are finding it much harder to recruit [those] long haul drivers,” he explains.
“Somebody who wants to manage concerns is going to say, hey, don’t worry about it. We’ve got it under control. I get that,” says Novakovic, but there are also plenty of indicators that there is a real shortage, he insists. Novakovic points to the high wages offered to entice long haul drivers as well as the increased push for technologies as evidence of the labor shortage, a shortage that could intensify if increased demand for groceries continue.
Plus.ai, a California-based company, has developed a self-driving system for trucks that it recently tested with a butter delivery from California to Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the U.S. Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced a nationwide exemption to rules limiting daily driving hours for truck drivers delivering emergency supplies, hand sanitizer and food supply.
COVID-19’s impact to other laborers in the food system remains far less clear. Most farms are located in sparsely populated rural areas, so experts hope the virus has a low chance of spreading to the majority of agricultural operations. “Farming is like social distancing for a lifetime,” explains Novakovic, but he also cautions that the number of workers varies greatly depending on the time of the year. “We’re now in the beginning of planting season,” he explains, which means many farms have employees working around the clock.
Dairy, pork, beef and chicken producers typically have far more employees than most crop operations, and these workers often handle food in relatively close quarters. “In some operations, particularly animal operations, you’ve got daily activities…where you have workers in pretty close proximity, two or three times a day.” These working conditions would certainly be strained if significant numbers of the workforce became infected.
Should the coronavirus threaten dairy farms and other livestock operations, health precautions will need to be taken very seriously, says Novakovic. Luckily, he says, these food producers are already subject to a high number of food safety regulations, so new requirements shouldn’t pose too steep a learning curve.
Food processing facilities can also require significant numbers of employees, though much depends on the food being processed, says Novakovic. Cheese processing operations, for example, can sometimes run with practically no human intervention at all while the cheese is culturing, for example, whereas chicken processing plants are constantly packed with people.
The employees of these plants may be young and asymptomatic but if they become infected, they can still pass on the virus to the elderly and immunocompromised, so these types of facilities will need to be especially careful.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on grocery shopping, but it’s also turned conventional wisdom about grocery shopping on its head. “Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables” is suddenly not very practical, and a number of experts are urging people to stockpile canned foods and starchy foods like potatoes, foods that last longer in storage.
These foods may not be the most healthful, but they do last. And with longer-lasting food in their pantries, shoppers may finally ease up on those grocery shopping binges, a shift that would at least help alleviate the current extra pressure on the food supply chain.