The food supply chain bent but did not break

But the pandemic also highlighted many weaknesses 
in a complex system with many parts

The food supply chain did not fail Canadian consumers in the first half of 2020 despite huge challenges.

Yes, there were times when some product was sold out or limited, but emaciated shelves were short lived. Overall, consumers had adequate access to food and beverages from the Canadian food supply chain.

The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) spoke with supply chain partners in April to get a perspective on what the current challenges were and to what the future challenges may be. It’s an interesting dialogue that most certainly points toward focused diligence moving forward.

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The most pressing immediate issues identified within the supply chain were within the infrastructure of transportation, distribution and the final act of stocking shelves. Embedded in this was the overarching concern for the health and safety of staff. This is not inclusive of food produced in Canada as the supply chain for food on Canadian shelves also heavily depends on inspection, port and dock workers.

The process of getting food to the plate was somewhat slowed down with new protocols, which included staggering shifts in processing plants and warehouses. Despite a good effort by many in the food industry, employees may not have felt safe or may have stayed home because they had symptoms and were concerned about passing on the coronavirus. The absence of 10 per cent of the workforce early in the spring was manageable, but a confirmed case in house had a profound effect as all exposed parties were then isolated.

Perishable product did indeed perish and food waste became an issue. There are no alternatives when plants close.

Food supply chains not only rely on people but they are heavily dependent on the technology and equipment it takes to process food for the shelf. Specialized maintenance skill is often shared between processing facilities, and travel restrictions put limits on this expertise between plants. Getting parts for the processing floor became a challenge and just as in farming, that part may have to come through a port or across the border, slowing and complicating some of the process. In addition, road transportation was taxed as truckers faced increased demand, long waits and open roads that were lacking in facilities and food.

These issues are ongoing and are part of the broader concerns regarding regulation, inspection, permitting, licensing, lack of digitization and product identification. COVID magnified these concerns as inspectors could be sparse. In short: no inspection, no sales.

So those cookies, cucumbers, or chicken wings could sit a long time before moving through the system just as could any food-related item as a commodity (live inspection) or as a food (product inspection).

Border inspection remains an issue. There is little flexibility in the system to move things along without the regulatory framework in play. It all ties into a food supply network that includes local, provincial, interprovincial, international and global stakeholders.

As in any crisis, those companies and local regulators that lacked emergency preparedness quickly found themselves struggling. This could have been due to a lack of a plan in protective equipment or the absence of digitized systems right through to employee protocols. Recent history really brought forward the importance of addressing gaps early and at all levels including the industry implementation of existing supportive legislation.

Getting away from strictly sectorial leadership will be important as a situation such as a pandemic shows the intersectionality of all parts of the supply chain and her stakeholders. Sharing common questions is helpful such as: How are consumers going to pay for the increase in production costs? How would this snapshot in time affect future food security? Will demand change and if so what is the effect on the supply chain?

Going forward, the rebuilding of the economy will depend largely on access to an abundant workforce from the field to the processing floor. This remains a challenge in the agri-food industry. As Canada has an agri-food trade deficit we must examine if our global buyers will go elsewhere and if Canadian food processors will continue to be able to source and sell ingredients.

The participants in the CAPI report repeatedly circled back to regulatory burdens but were quick to also point out that governments were addressing issues in an ever-changing and most certainly newly evolving environment.

There is work to be done as the lessons learned included a stronger focus on domestic capacity, access to labour, ensuring food security, dialogue on flexibility or change in regulatory space and the development of new technology, tools, action plans and solutions.

I saw a new way of knowing and doing emerge from the report as solutions were sought that were more collaborative in nature with a focus on nationalism while maintaining Canada’s excellent reputation in global trade. Visible and digital data and information systems may be a cornerstone in food systems of the future and the industry has vowed to think ahead and to proceed with preparedness for all things; thus ensuring the nation’s food supply chain remains resilient and food is accessible to all Canadians.

About the author

AF Columnist

Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp works as an international mentor and motivational speaker. She can be contacted through her website at www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved.

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