Word that a Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota, where 5 percent of the nation's pork is processed, sent ripples across the U.S. food industry. It didn't help that just a few days later, another Smithfield plant – this one much closer to home, in Tar Heel, North Carolina – shuttered after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
The closures prompted a far-reaching question: How secure is the food supply?
Dr. Adam Kantrovich, an associate professor of agribusiness at Clemson University, says there is plenty of food available in South Carolina and it will likely stay that way. There are, he says, several factors that would have to come into play in order for South Carolina to experience large-scale food shortages that, though possible, are not likely to happen.
"If you think about it like the internet, we don’t have just one or two processing facilities, we have multiples throughout the country," he says. "So although we may lose a single portion of a link, we are going to see diversions occur."
In other words, if a South Carolina food processing plant were to shut down, others would fill in. The same holds true in reverse -- if something were to disrupt a sector of the food supply chain in another state and South Carolina could fill in, we would Kantrovich says.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that the outlook for domestic production of cereals, meat and dairy is very good. "We have sufficient quantities to not only feed our country but maintain robust exports even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic," the agency announced in a recent statement.
South Carolina is also better insulated from major disruptions in the food supply because the infrastructure – especially in the meat industry – is not so centralized as it is with pork in South Dakota.
"South Carolina doesn’t actually have any big slaughterhouses," says Eva Moore, communications director for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. "We don’t have anything of that scale, or that type of industry."
So the industry’s myriad moving parts mean that food is still being produced. But what about demand? When restaurants were open and people shopped as they always had, foodmakers had a generally predictable idea of how much food went where. Their costs and incomes were more or less reliable. But restaurants don’t need food in nearly the quantities they did before the pandemic. So in what might appear to be a counterintuitive reality, South Carolina, in many cases, has more food than it can sell.
Moore says food producers are having to find ways to get rid of product.
"We’ve seen a lot of companies having to adapt a little bit. They’ve had to change who they’re selling to. We’ve seen a lot of wholesalers pivoting to try to sell direct to the public. So you’re seeing a lot of adaptation, but you’re not really seeing disruptions that are long term."
Something foodmakers benefited from in the opening weeks of quarantine was panic buying. In addition to paper products, shoppers loaded up mightily on things like flour, dried beans, and meats that can spend time in a freezer. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the consumer price index for food in March was up by half a percent – led mainly by food-at-home, i.e., food you buy in a supermarket.
But panic buying has ebbed since March and grocery stores are enforcing limits on items like canned goods and other bulk-buys. Last week, Bloomberg reported that with panic buying leveled off, food suppliers are now feeling increased pressure on their bottom lines. The numbers for April will not be out until May.
Nevertheless confidence in the economic security of the food industry remains high. And, says Eva Moore, confidence in the the safety of the food from contamination is also high.
"The agriculture industry is used to keeping things clean and it’s used to protecting against foodborne illnesses," Moore says. "So we’re seeing industry have to maybe shift a little bit to keep distances between workers, to keep workers safe from each other, but it’s not a totally new concept that people would be wearing protective equipment or taking precautions."
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.