Silence complicates efforts to gauge readiness of food industry

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Several large, influential food companies and organizations contacted by Weekly Briefing had little or nothing to say about their pandemic preparedness plans. One crisis planner says that such companies need to face the realities of a pandemic—and that not sharing information is counterproductive for all.

"I think that's the wrong approach," says Jay Schwarz, vice president for information systems with the wholesale and retail grocery company Alex Lee, referring to some organizations' lack of transparency about their plans. "Now that we have this just-in-time global economy, I think many people don't realize just how bad [food-delivery problems] could get."

Alex Lee has readily shared copies of the company's pandemic plans with the grocery industry. At a meeting of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association in fall 2006, Schwarz stressed the importance of industry cooperation during a pandemic to ensure the continuity of the food supply. "We just can't compete on this one," he says. "It's simply that important."

In the event of a pandemic, Schwarz says, any grocery organization would be overwhelmed by all the extra business if competitors have to close. "If only one grocery chain does a great job, there's no way they'll be able to handle [the excess demand]," he says.

Difficulties in obtaining information from major food industry players are outlined here:

  • ConAgra Foods Inc., Omaha, Neb., convened a pandemic task force more than a year ago but will not disclose any details, says spokeswoman Stephanie Childs. ConAgra, which has 27,000 employees, manufactures and markets brands such as Chef Boyardee and Orville Redenbacher's to retailers and food service providers.
  • C&S Wholesale Grocers, Keene, N.H., rarely releases information to the media, a spokeswoman says. C&S, which employs 20,000 people, supplies supermarkets such as Safeway, A&P Food Mart, and BJ's Warehouse.
  • Despite repeated requests for an interview over 2 weeks, no one at the Food Marketing Institute, Crystal City, Va., was available for comment, according to spokesman Bill Greer. The organization conducts programs in research, education, industry relations, and public affairs for the 1,500 food retailers and wholesalers that make up its membership—and that represent three fourths of all retail food stores in the United States.
  • No one at the National Grocers Association (NGA), Arlington, Va., could address pandemic planning, according to spokeswoman Christine Cunnick. NGA is the national trade association of independent retail and wholesale grocers.

—Mary Van Beusekom

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