What does food industry preparedness mean for you? Plenty

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – The Source Weekly Briefing is dedicated to providing critical information that both the private and public sectors can act on to develop comprehensive and effective pandemic preparedness plans. However, we recognize the unique challenge that the next pandemic poses for such planning, particularly as it will affect the global, just-in-time economy. Because so much is uncertain about the next pandemic, one could conclude that there isn't much we can truly do to prepare.

The lead article in this issue is the second in a two-part series examining the ability of food manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers to deliver food in a pandemic. Weekly Briefing staff writer Mary Van Beusekom has clearly and convincingly highlighted the best and worst in pandemic preparedness activities for one of our most critical private sectors: the food system.

Front-and-center issue

You may be tempted to minimize the importance of food-sector pandemic planning because it's not your business. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If your workers can't get access to food during a pandemic for all the reasons detailed in these articles, how can you expect them to be available and willing to work even if you provide them with preventive measures against influenza, such as antiviral drugs, respirators, or masks? You can't.

You also must think about what this means to your family. Even if the business consideration doesn't motivate you, the impact that a lack of food has on your loved ones should be a compelling reason to be concerned about this issue and to demand more of your grocery store management—and their bosses.

Together, the US Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Homeland Security must follow the lead of companies like Alex Lee to develop real plans to protect the nation's food supply. And key trade organizations such as the Food Marketing Institute (which serves the needs of food distributors, grocery wholesalers, and retail supermarkets) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association (which includes food, beverage, and consumer product companies) must be integrally involved in this planning. Plans must be national and even international in scope for securing at least a subsistence food supply during a pandemic. To date none of these organizations have developed comprehensive, tested plans.

The Weekly Briefing food series also raises important concerns about strategies that selected food companies have employed to develop pandemic plans. I've learned that some companies require their suppliers to sign affidavits indicating that their companies have workable pandemic plans in place. But we can take very limited comfort in these pieces of "legal paper." Many of these statements are barely worth the paper they are printed on, because suppliers are in no better position to prepare for a pandemic than are their buyers.

In short, we need pandemic preparedness leadership from the private sector, which to date has been absent from far too many areas of the country's business community.

As a September 2006 report by the Department of Homeland Security put it, "Eighty-five percent of critical infrastructure resources reside in the private sector, which generally lacks individual and system-wide business continuity plans specifically for catastrophic health emergencies such as pandemic influenza."

Bottom line for business

The articles on the pandemic preparedness status of the food wholesale and retail industry in this country were not intended to give a black eye for a critical business sector we largely take for granted every day. Rather, we believe they represent a clarion call to all businesses and their employees to inform themselves of what they can expect during the pandemic and what they can do now to minimize the eventual impact.

If you are in the healthcare, energy-generation, transportation, or telecommunications industries, it's understandable if you haven't made the food wholesale and retail sector a priority. That has to change. And, for that matter, the food-supply sector also needs to be concerned about the preparedness status of the energy, transportation, healthcare, and telecommunications industries.

Business leaders in every community should demand that CEOs of the primary food retailers (and in turn, upstream suppliers) in these communities detail what they are doing to ensure an adequate food supply during the next pandemic. We need many more Alex Lees and SYSCOs when the pandemic begins. Now is the time to make that happen.

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