How Produce Growers and Packagers Can Stabilize Retail Supply Chain During Coronavirus Pandemic

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[View original article from the N.C. Food Innovation Lab]

Chaos in the Supply Chain?

Regulatory officials confirm food products are safe, available and meeting consumers’ needs during this pandemic. However, the press is reporting incidences of producers not harvesting produce because they are challenged with pivoting their inventory from fulfilling food service needs to fulfilling retail outlets. This has created chaos in the supply chain.

In addition, dairy producers in the upper Midwest are dumping milk because school lunch programs are currently not utilizing the milk, and food service outlets are only taking a small percentage of the product volume they were buying before the pandemic. Dairy processors are flush with milk, and production capacity for cheese, butter and dry milk powders is full. This is problematic.

This blog presents ideas for produce growers and packagers to move products into both the supply chain and consumers’ shopping carts and also makes suggestions for the remaining food sectors to consider.

How to Move Products Into the Supply Chain

First and foremost, review your food safety programs at your farms and processing centers. Now is not the time for a food safety problem. Personnel health and welfare should also be carefully planned and shared with your employees. You must have a written plan that addresses all known contingencies in case you have a large number of employees get sick. Through this planning process, you may also identify extra steps that can be taken as precautions.

Produce currently needs to be packaged differently to assure and protect consumers. It is human nature for a person to handle and pick through fresh produce before selecting what he or she perceives as the highest quality item. Food safety experts agree that coronavirus is not spread by food contact, but precautions should still be employed.

Suggestions for produce packaging include:

  • Simple heat-sealing equipment and plastic bags (linear low density polyethylene; 2 mil thickness) with a minimal label work well to package green leafy vegetables and most fruits. Many greens are packaged this way today.
  • Trays with plastic overwrap are excellent for potatoes, onions and similar items.
  • Dozens of fresh fruits and vegetables like carrots, cleaned radishes, apples, oranges, and potatoes are bagged today and closed with wire ties. Five- to ten-pound bags of produce products may not be necessary, and producers should consider two- to three-pound bags. This will be more attractive to smaller households as well as provide an element of safety.
  • Food service boxes can be repurposed and over-labeled as shipping cartons to protect bagged or trayed produce. If boxes are sturdy, they can be used as displays by retailers to accelerate re-stocking efforts. This also presents excellent marketing opportunities for the producer.
  • Bushel and half-bushel boxes of berries should be covered or boxed with the lids sealed or taped. This packaging is not ideal for customers to visualize the produce and potentially compromises the shelf life of berries. However, this small packaging change could help minimize coronavirus spread.
  • Bulk packaging of perishable produce is needed by food banks and shelters. Food insecurity concerns throughout rural North Carolina, other parts of the state and the nation are rising daily. Providing nutritious fruits and vegetables to these essential service providers helps those who are resource-compromised, especially those who are also immunocompromised, follow good nutritional practices during this pandemic.

Produce Harvesting + Supplying

Produce harvesting and supplying from local fields is currently very important. We are still experiencing transportation challenges to fill our supply chains and to help local economies procure the food supplies they need for sustenance. The idea of consumers buying bulk packaging of local produce also offers longer refrigerated shelf life to minimize consumer’s trips to retail outlets and can assist with minimizing coronavirus spread.

Seasonality is currently a challenge in North Carolina and states further north because a limited amount of harvesting is presently occurring, but there are still plenty of new crops coming to market now like asparagus, radishes, mushrooms, greens, spinach and sweet potatoes. Many other crops will be maturing as we edge closer to May.

Leading By Example

Other commodities should take note of how the produce industry handles this crisis and consider how to fill supply chains with their products:

  • Milk: Milk could be packaged in two- to three-gallon bag-in-box containers. This is probably not currently possible in today’s milk processing plants, but should be explored further. Packaging machines exist for packaging configurations that allow aseptic packaging.
  • Eggs: Eggs traditionally packaged in cartons of 12-18 eggs should be trayed in packaging currently used for food service and overwrapped with plastic film. This simple packaging and labeling presents more opportunities to buy bulk without having to buy 12 dozen eggs.

Both the milk and egg ideas will also be positively viewed as sustainability efforts after the pandemic.

Looking Beyond COVID-19

The produce industry has been exploring novel washing methods, technology and packaging to mitigate pathogens. In years past, consumers have been hesitant to accept these changes even though the technology has been proven to protect them. Consumers are being forced to accept change at a faster pace than ever before, so maybe after the pandemic, they will be more receptive to new techniques.

The food industry needs to move ahead with these technologies and packaging changes and encourage consumers to accept them as part of a post-coronavirus food safety strategy.

Headquartered at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, the 15,000-square-foot North Carolina Food Innovation Lab opened its doors in 2019. NCFIL, an NC State facility, grew out of an ongoing partnership of the university, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the N.C. Department of Commerce/Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina to support food processing and manufacturing of North Carolina commodities within the borders of our state. Discover more about the N.C. Food Innovation Lab.