Grocery store shoppers are being met with empty store shelves, not because there is a shortage of food, but because the nation’s food supply chain is struggling to cope with either stockpiling by consumers, or a slump in demand from restaurants, and illness among workers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dairy farmers have been forced to dump milk in manure pits or otherwise dispose of it due to a precipitous drop in demand from schools, restaurants and other food service providers.
At the same time, grocery stores have limited sales in an attempt to stave off hoarding and keep milk on the shelves.
Around the country, beef, pork and chicken plants have closed since the beginning of the month as workers came down with COVID-19.
With restaurants and schools closed, food-service demand has evaporated. Making the change from processing and packaging items for foodservice clients to preparing food for retail sales has proven to be a long and difficult process for food producers and manufacturers.
“I think supply chain will look fundamentally different coming out of this,” said Mark Allen, chief executive of The International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA).
The $300 billion foodservice industry has seen a sales decline of 60% to 90% due to COVID-19, Allen said. The wide range takes into account all of different kinds of organizations that foodservice caters to, from restaurants to hospitals to convenience stores.
Though the supply chains for retail and foodservice are similar, there are notable differences. For example, labeling is different between the two categories, and lots of items going through the foodservice supply chains is at a jumbo size that wouldn’t even be appropriate for warehouse sellers like Costco Wholesale Corp. /zigman2/quotes/201191698/composite COST -0.32% or BJ’s Wholesale Club Holdings Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203668982/composite BJ +0.50%
After the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, many foodservice companies added businesses and other institutions as customers in an effort to lessen their reliance on restaurants and recession-proof their businesses. As a result foodservice has established relationships and systems that have proven to be challenges in the COVID-19 pandemic. Allen says his group’s members find themselves “stuck” because they have product that they can’t easily move to retail channels.
“I think we will have to go through another evaluation of what it means to be recession proof,” Allen said. “It’s going to have to mean establishing some longer-term relationships with retailers. A foodservice distributor could be capable of filling the perimeter of the grocery store.”
The perimeter of a grocery store includes meat and produce. He also notes that foodservice companies have been opening up their warehouses to the public.
The order to dump milk comes from the buyer. For most Wisconsin producers, that’s usually a farmer-owned cooperative who will tell certain producers to dump but will “blend” the losses across its membership so that it’s a shared burden, explained Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Producers who sell directly to processors, however, could find themselves shut out and forced to eat the cost of the dumped milk on their own.
Before the pandemic, around two-thirds of sales of fluid milk went through the retail channel, with the remainder roughly split by foodservice and institutional sales, Stephenson said. Cheese sales were around 50% foodservice, which includes food eaten at restaurants, catered events and company cafeterias, with around 40% retail and the remainder through institutions.
Even as meals shift from restaurants and foodservice to the home, dairy producers lose out. That’s because restaurants typically use more dairy, particularly cheese and butter, than consumers use at home, data show.
No surprise, it’s all making for tough times in dairyland. What’s more, it comes just as forecasts had indicated 2020 would be a “recovery year” for dairy prices after five consecutive years of relatively low prices, Stephenson said. Now prices have collapsed, with May Class III milk futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange dropping more than 13% since the end of March and off more than 36% year-to-date, ending Monday at $11.57 per hundredweight.