Is our food supply chain at risk? 

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When we hear about supply chains, we often think about technologies and manufactured goods shipped from overseas into ports on the West Coast. Yet the most critical supply chain, which most of us do not give much thought to, has a significant domestic footprint: supplying food to our nation. 

For many, going to the grocery store to purchase food or visiting a favorite restaurant are activities we often take for granted. We believe such food items will always be available. Yet food is more than an enjoyable good — it is a necessity for survival. Lack of food for just three weeks can be deadly for humans. Lack of water can be deadly in just three or four days.  

The nation’s food supply chain is an intricate network of farms, processors, distributors and retailers that create and deliver the foods that we rely upon, purchase and enjoy. The logistics network that moves foods from such sources to retailers, the so-called “last mile,” is both large and complex. It must manage the finite shelf-life and temperature demands of perishable foods, such as dairy products, produce, poultry, seafood and beef, ensuring that what is delivered can be safely consumed. The food supply chain operates non-stop, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, subject to weather disruptions and ever-present fluctuations and uncertainty in supply and demand.

Any disruptions to this supply chain can have disastrous consequences, resulting in product shortages and, in extreme instances, empty grocery shelves, further exacerbating food insecurity. This was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Any time there is an anticipated product shortage, panic buying occurs, which further fuels shortages, ultimately creating the risk of higher prices. 

So what can cause food shortages? 

Cyberattacks, particularly ransomware, are an ever-present threat to the nation’s food supply chain. Consider, for example, the incident in which the computer system for meat producer JBS USA was infiltrated and disrupted in 2021, temporarily straining its ability to deliver products.  

The good news is that information is widely available about the risks of such threats, allowing food producers to maintain high levels of vigilance and cyber protections to avert calamitous disruptions. The Farm and Food Cybersecurity Act of 2024 is a concrete step as well to systematically protect the nation’s food supply chain. 

Natural threats such as viruses can also disrupt the food supply chain. We are now facing such a threat with the H5N1 bird flu virus. This virus has been detected in the supply chain, including poultry and dairy cows. Dairy farm worker infections have also been reported. This creates the risk of person-to-person transmission, though none have occurred to date. 

At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture are in a difficult situation with H5N1, effectively walking a public health tight rope.  

On the one hand, they strive to protect the population from H5N1 and transmission from poultry or dairy products to people. On the other hand, they also want to avoid inciting panic that could depress milk demand, derailing the dairy industry. Given that H5N1 has been detected in raw milk, consumers have been reminded to only drink and use pasteurized dairy products for their own health and well-being. 

The third source of threat may come from outside the country. Infiltrating the food supply chain at any link can lead to production shutdowns and limit food availability. For example, when foreign countries buy agricultural land, giving them control over both production and safety of products entering the food supply chain, risks to the food supply chain increase. Such risks are likely to be low in the short term but remain unclear over the long term, which cannot be ignored. 

Then there are unintended consequences of laws and policies that can affect the food supply chain. 

Immigration reform is on many people’s minds, especially as we approach Election Day. Yet many farms rely on migrant workers, some of which may be undocumented. These workers support output across the U.S. agricultural spectrum, including dairy farms, the beef, pork and poultry industries, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. If immigration reform makes it difficult or impossible to attract such workers, the impact on multiple food supply chains will be felt by everyone. 

Food supply chain risks are ubiquitous. Mitigating such risks demands diversity and redundancy in suppliers, which competition in the markets naturally fuels. Efforts to expand locally grown products are on the rise, allaying some of the food supply chain risks. Yet as was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the entire system is impacted, diversity and redundancy have limited influence to mitigate disruptions. They do, however, accelerate recovery, which is what was experienced. 

Should people be concerned that the food supply chain is at risk of collapse? Certainly not. Yet prudent precautions and sensible planning can ensure that food remains safe and available today, and for the foreseeable future.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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