America’s Fragile Food Supply Chain, Part IV

Part IV: The Food Delivery System

The food delivery system is the part of the food and agriculture sector most Americans are probably most familiar with. This includes the food processing centers, food transportation and delivery mechanisms, and (most familiar) the restaurants, grocery stores, and other retail sales outlets where we buy our food. At this point probably none of us are surprised when we see news of food poisoning and in fact most of us have probably had our own unpleasant encounters with bad food. Mass sickening, deaths, and economic damage from contamination in the food supply chain occur with some frequency.

Salmonella is one of the prime culprits and some of the larger-scale examples include 1989 when Mexican cantaloupes infected with salmonella sickened 25,000 in the U.S. 2008 when 1,400 Americans were sickened with salmonella by what was first blamed on Florida tomatoes and was later traced back to Mexican peppers. The infamous peanut butter salmonella

outbreak in 2008 and 2009 was one of largest outbreaks in history with hundreds becoming sick all around the U.S. and nine deaths resulting. Taken from their website the Centers for Disease Control, “estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.”

Not all intrusions into our food supply are the result of carelessness. The only known and proven Agroterrorism attack to have occurred in the United States was the well known Rajneeshee cult’s intentional poisononing of salad bars with Salmonella in Oregon in 1984 as part of an attempt to affect local elections. In 1989 an anonymous call claimed grapes from Chile bound for the U.S. had been intentionally laced with cyanide. Just a few months ago in Tampa, FL several people were sickened with meat bought from the local Wal-Mart. Testing found the meat was laced with the psychedelic drug LSD. That investigation continues.

In addition to the human illness and casualty toll of these outbreaks they can also be economically devastating. The Florida tomato scare ruined the tomato industry in 2008 costing producers well in excess of $100 million. In the case of the Chilean grape scare no contaminated samples were ever found, but the mere threat was enough to devastate Chile’s grape industry, result in $400 million in economic losses, and cause thousands to lose their jobs. When a food item is found to be the subject of contamination people stop buying and consuming the item whether it be tomatoes or peanut butter or grapes.

As discussed in the last chapter the food chain supply is a system of systems. The food delivery system is a subsystem of the food chain and also is comprised of multiple subsystems. Any node in any part of these systems is a point of vulnerability where the food supply can become contaminated whether by human error or intentional act. The below chart depicts the gobal food supply system.

As you can see it is extremely complex to say the least. Suffice to say every point in this system is vital to the system functioning to deliver food from the fields or point of production to your table and every point comes with its own unique vulnerabilities. Take one specific system from within the food supply system for consideration – peanuts. For most of us the term “complexity” probably does not come to mind when we think of the peanut. However, as you can see below the peanut supply system is a complex system of its own.

From what begins as a simple peanut then may go straight into distribution or may go into manufacturing into any number of refined products. From distribution then to retail stores, restaurants, further food manufacturing, vending, and home kitchens. Feeding into these nodes are the transportation system, warehousing, water supply, ingredients suppliers, grocers, large and small companies.

In the food supply chain the earlier a contamination occurs in the system the greater the potential impact. For instance if a contamination occurs with products toward the end of the system at a single grocery store the effects will be limited. In the case of the 2009 nationwide peanut salmonella outbreaks the investigation revealed the contamination occurred at the very beginning of the system with the peanut. In that case 3,913 products made by 361 different companies were contaminated with salmonella resulting in 714 sickened victims across 46 states. The peanuts all originated from the Peanut Corporation of America. According to a Food Safety News article PCA had been accused (though never charged or convicted) of knowingly shipping contaminated product.

An ancillary issue to a direct attack or outbreak in the food delivery system would be the impact resulting from some other major event or disaster which affects food delivery. It could be a major disruption to the transportation system or a major seaport or a disaster in a major city. The issue involves the just in time delivery system we have here in the United States. Due to the enormous costs associated with storing food and other products we have a highly refined ordering and delivery system designed to receive products just in time to be put on shelves and sold. Food imports account for about 17% per capita in the U.S. and they are designed to be delivered to our ports just in time to then be shipped to the stores for purchase. It does not take much to disrupt this flow of food and goods. Large cities are known to have from 3 to 5 days worth of food at any given time. In Florida after impact from major hurricanes military issue MRE’s are distributed out from aid stations to citizens in need usually for several days to over a week until grocery stores are able to reopen and restock. Until then there is simply no food available until the food supply chain catches back up after the event.

In the next and final installment, Part V, will conclude this series on the food supply chain with a discussion about What Do We Do?

Link to Part III, The Food Production System

Link to Part II, Agroterrorism Vs Naturally Occurring Threats

Link to Part I, Introduction to Agriculture in the United States