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H5N1 Caution, Not Fear, For Food Marketing Institute
An "ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure" was a famous phrase in decades past that may make its way back into favor if the Food Marketing Institute has its attitude adopted.
The distribution channel for supermarkets is run so effectively that people only carry enough fresh food for about three to four days. When and if the H5N1 avian flu pandemic hits the human population, people will be urged not to go out into public and eat in public places.
So what is a food distribution system to do to make sure people who are able to live through the pandemic do not die from starvation?
Excerpts from The Associated Press via Business Week -
Grocers prep for pandemic run on food
By TIMBERLY ROSS - The Associated Press February 18, 2007, 2:06PM EST
OMAHA, Neb. - Stocking up on food is as simple as a trip to the grocery store, a veritable land of plenty for Americans.
"It's so easy when you have three grocery stores in your vicinity," said Becky Jones of Omaha, who stocks up once a week for her family of three. "You think: how could you possibly not get what you needed?"
But will fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, bread, milk and other household staples still be available if the U.S. is hit with an anticipated bird flu pandemic? If state and federal officials urge people to stay away from public places, like restaurants and fast-food establishments, will they be able to get the groceries they need to prepare food in their homes?
Unlike other critical infrastructure sectors like water, energy and health care, the food industry isn't getting much help from state and federal governments when it comes to disaster planning. That puts the burden on individual supermarket chains and wholesalers to deal with a potentially large number of sick workers that could affect store operations and disrupt the food supply.
"The industry is actively thinking through contingency plans, so if it should happen, our members would be well prepared to deal with it," said Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute, an advocate for grocery wholesalers and retail supermarkets nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates a third of the population could fall ill if the H5N1 strain of the bird flu mutates into a form that spreads easily from person to person.
But if a pandemic emerges, the Department of Homeland Security projects worker absenteeism to reach 40 percent or more over a prolonged period. Hammonds said retail food stores would have to contend with worker shortages and disruptions in the supply chain.
The food and agriculture industry is listed among 13 critical-infrastructure sectors that the Department of Homeland Security says must remain functional during a pandemic.
"Having those critical facilities open -- like power, water, food -- becomes very important" during a national disaster such as a pandemic, said Keith Hanson, an outreach coordinator for Nebraska's Center for Biopreparedness Education.
Hanson said continued operations of power and water utilities are of the utmost importance, but grocery stores rank highly too. That's because people today keep less food on hand, opting instead to make weekly trips to the grocery store.
Americans are also dining out more than they have in the past. Money spent on food prepared outside the home rose from 34 percent of total food costs in 1974 to about 50 percent in 2004, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Food Marketing Institute's Hammonds said a widespread pandemic will likely cause food consumption to shift away from restaurants and fast-food establishments and toward in-home eating, causing a greater demand for groceries.
"That means stores would need to be prepared for an increase in volume," he said.
Hy-Vee, a West Des Moines, Iowa-based supermarket chain that operates more than 200 stores in the Midwest, does not have a disaster plan developed in the event of avian flu. But company spokeswoman Chris Friesleben said the company keeps abreast of the illness through the Food Marketing Institute.
"The food supply is essential to the well-being of the community," said Hammonds. "We've been through a lot about what we need to do as a supermarket."
That includes urging wholesalers and retailers to talk with their suppliers about alternative sources for their products and to anticipate what products will be in high demand in a pandemic situation, such as medicines and food staples.
Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for Omaha-based ConAgra Foods Inc., said a company task force was formed more than a year ago to develop an operating plan in the event of a national disaster. The plan specifically addresses bird flu, examines areas that could be affected and how the company could respond, she said.
The company employs about 27,000 people, but Homeland Security projections indicate that number could fall to 16,200 during a pandemic.
Childs said such worker shortages and difficulties with suppliers getting their products to ConAgra plants were among the potential problems the company identified. She did not disclose how the company would address those issues.
The federal government and public health agencies are urging people to stock up on nonperishable food, like canned goods and dried fruit, to ensure they have to food to eat during a pandemic.
Jones, the Omaha woman, said that's a proactive approach, but was worried that people with limited incomes may not be able to afford a large stockpile of food.
She stopped short of calling for the government to oversee the food industry's pandemic planning, but said, "If they see a crisis that is on the horizon, they do have to give us some type of warning."