When first confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, it was a threat that challenged the world’s ability to reduce risk exposure. Unlike other disasters, COVID-19 is an acute global health emergency that precipitated an economic and societal crisis upending livelihoods, industries, and our way of life. The impact of this emergency on the food system was felt almost immediately around the world. In a climate of innovation disruption, an invisible virus proved the biggest disruptor of them all.
Food is essential to life and social order. To reinforce this, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) identified the food and agriculture sector as a critical infrastructure industry and provided guidance on essential workers within the sector who were called upon to maintain their normal work responsibilities during the pandemic. We sincerely appreciate all the essential workers throughout the global food system who are the engines behind the safety and continuity of our food supply and selflessly continued working despite the risks. We have also learned a few things as we navigated these uncertain times.
Supply Chain Resilience Tested
Global supply chains have been at the heart of a growing global trade to meet the demand of our rising population. In the U.S., scaled supply chains have been optimized for cost and on-time delivery making it the most concentrated and efficient food chain in the world with only a month’s worth of system inventory. The enormity of the pandemic upended this balance at both the supply and demand ends.
While there is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19, the circumstances of this pandemic are creating concerns about food safety vulnerabilities and risks throughout the supply chain. Food fraud in its various forms often feeds on crises, supply tensions, and imbalances between supply and demand. In early April, Mérieux NutriSciences reported a dramatic increase in food fraud cases since the COVID-19 outbreak began, with adulteration up 94%, tampering up 25%, and counterfeits up 37%. A June 2020 International Food Information Council (IFIC) study indicates that nearly 70% of consumers are still confident in the safety of the food supply, but COVID-19 is now the top food safety issue, with food handling and preparation among the top concerns.
Consumer Behavior Shifts
According to the IFIC study, nearly half of consumers are concerned about the safety of food prepared outside the home. 42% are concerned about food safety while shopping for groceries online and 36% are concerned about food safety while shopping for groceries in stores. There is a definite correlation between these numbers and changes in consumer habits. Trips to grocery stores have been declining in favor of larger baskets and online grocery shopping. E-commerce is growing fast with rapid technology improvements to meet volume and reach. Consumers are adjusting to the new reality of cooking more at home, with younger consumers, who were apt to frequently dine out, making more substantial lifestyle changes. Snacking is on the rise. In response to these shifting attitudes, manufacturers are streamlining product offerings and slowing innovation efforts, at least in the short term.
Food Insecurity Heightened
COVID-19 is indiscriminate but those at a disadvantage are most vulnerable. The virus mortality is significantly higher among those suffering from non-communicable diseases and exposed to various risks in lower socio-economic circumstances. Furthermore, millions of underprivileged Americans live in food deserts—areas where a significant portion of the population lives more than a mile from the nearest supermarket or grocery store in urban areas, or 10 miles away in rural areas. This was a significant issue before the pandemic began. Stay-at-home orders, fear of grocery shopping, and access to transportation have exacerbated the problem, exposing even more people to hunger and malnutrition.
Mounting job losses or decreases in income are yet another factor. Women are bearing the brunt of unemployment and over 40% of women-headed households with children under the age of 12 are now food insecure. In addition, rising food prices are stretching low-income budgets beyond their limit and school closures have limited vulnerable children’s access to essential nutrition like milk.
The Path Forward
The IFT vision—a world where science and innovation are universally accepted as essential to a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for everyone—is timeless and more relevant than ever. During these defining times, food scientists are critical to addressing the challenges we face and redesigning the future food system. A few key considerations:
It is impossible to predict the full impact of this pandemic, but we can start to outline our short- and long-term risk exposure and put mitigation measures in place. The list of what needs to be done is long and expensive and will require national and international partnerships. The scientific community is leading the way with record high collaboration in the race to find a vaccine and save lives, and our science of food community is doing their part to find solutions to the food challenges facing humanity. I look forward to seeing what innovative approaches come out of this crisis and how we, as a collective membership community, will work together to help solve challenges now and into the future.
A conversation with IFT's senior food safety and traceability scientist Sara Bratager
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