The U.S. food supply chain has become so efficient in recent years that grocery stores and their customers do not anticipate the sight of empty shelves. That image, however, was quickly shattered in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic when grocers, large and small, could not receive certain products fast enough to keep store shelves replenished.
Across the country, television news reports showed surprising videos of panicked shoppers looking for food and sanitization products to no avail.
“For years, we’ve walked into our grocery stores and only seen abundance,” said Kenny Lund, executive vice president of the Allen Lund Co., a longtime specialist in the logistics management of fresh fruits and vegetables to grocery stores, during the virtual FreightWaves 3PL Summit on Tuesday. “This COVID-19 has been unbelievable to where we have seen empty shelves and have seen scarcity.”
Andrew Cox, the FreightWaves research analyst who interviewed Lund about changes to the U.S. food supply chain during the pandemic, agreed. “We didn’t know the extent to which we took it for granted until store shelves were empty just a couple months ago,” he said.
The U.S. food supply chain has become a fine-tuned, just-in-time machine in recent years to the point that it struggles to adjust to a “just-in-case” logistics scenario thrust upon it by COVID-19, Lund said.
While communications and traceability within the fresh produce supply chain have greatly improved, Lund said drilling down to the nitty-gritty level of new delivery expectations must now be overcome by the industry.
“We can send a package by FedEx and we can track it all the way,” Lund said. “Yet we send a truckload of strawberries and we still have gaps in the information.
“That expectation of ‘I want to know where it is right now’ is a tough expectation,” he added. “It used to be ‘I know where it was’ once a day. Now that’s not good enough anymore.”
In addition, Lund, who chairs United Fresh’s Supply Chain Logistics Council, said there remains a general lack of knowledge among U.S. lawmakers about the complexity of the produce supply chain, which has been amplified by COVID-19 pandemic-induced shortages.
He said the industry must continue to do a better job educating Washington leaders about the complexity of the produce supply chain to understand what has occurred during the pandemic and what might happen after it is over.