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NMSU Analyzes Food Supply-Chain Crunch Exposed by COVID-19

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Demand for eggs spiked in mid-March when states rolled-out COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, creating shortages at grocery stores. (Wokandapix/Pixabay)
Demand for eggs spiked in mid-March when states rolled-out COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, creating shortages at grocery stores. (Wokandapix/Pixabay)
 By Roz Brown - Producer, Contact
December 11, 2020

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - COVID-19 has been a major challenge to America's food-supply chain, but a New Mexico researcher says it's proven resilient - despite unknowns and panic buying.

Initial stay-at-home orders led to stockpiling, empty grocery store shelves, and demand that far exceeded supply.

Jay Lillywhite, an agribusiness management and marketing professor at the New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, said various laws governing food labeling, packaging and sizing meant manufacturers and distributors were logistically paralyzed at the outset of the pandemic - which made consumers fearful there wouldn't be enough food.

"There is plenty of food there, the system is not 'broke,'" said Lillywhite. "It stretched, it had to modify, but it did not break. There's plenty of food out there, farmers are still farming."

In his department's research into making the supply chain more resilient, Lillywhite said the current agricultural system largely remains efficient and effective.

But he added that long-term effects of the pandemic on the industry are unknown, and describes the crisis as a "once-in-a-lifetime situation," comparable to the Great Depression.

The U.S. has two distinct supply chains: one for grocery stores and one for the food-service industry. Prior to the pandemic, the system consistently provided a huge variety of products to accommodate individual tastes - from the size and variety of pizzas to hundreds of toilet-paper brands.

Lillywhite said disruptions caused by the pandemic could not have been anticipated.

"I think part of the problem that we had with this pandemic is the size of that shock," said Lillywhite. "We had the supply shock initially - and then, you had the demand shock from consumers behaving the way we behaved."

He noted food-processing plants turned out to be a major weakness in the supply chain, since many are highly dependent on labor and saw their output disrupted due to high COVID-19 infection rates among workers.

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