There’s plenty of food and other household goods to go around in America, despite the crush of shopping in recent days.
Minnesotans and others across the country are burrowing in at home to help slow the spread of coronavirus, and food retailers are among the last businesses staying open. Some have reduced hours to give workers more time to clean and replenish shelves. But there is no serious threat seen to the food supply.
“This is not a food shortage issue. Instead, the demand simply shifted as people stocked their personal fridges, freezers and pantries,” said Ruth Kimmelshue, head of supply chain at Cargill Inc., the Minnetonka-based firm that is the nation’s largest agriculture processor and trader.
Cub Foods, the largest grocery chain in Minnesota, on Monday reported that sales this past weekend were greater than its usual busiest times, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the average transaction being twice as large as the same time a year ago. Rice and beans, dry pasta and pasta sauce, peanut butter, cereal and soup were in highest demand.
Even with other grocery chains experiencing similar spikes in business, Kimmelshue said, “We have enough food available to refill those stocks and feed everyone during this crisis.”
Stores are the last stop in a food supply chain that so far hasn’t reported any shortages.
Cargill is at the front end of the supply process. It buys raw foodstuffs from growers and turns them into basic food products, like cut meat or frozen eggs, or bioindustrial products like denatured ethanol, which is used to make hand sanitizer. Cargill sells these core products to consumer brand companies that then sell their finished food items to grocery stores and big box retailers.
“To date, we have been able to fulfill all retail and food service customer orders. We are not seeing tight quantities,” Kimmelshue said.
Store shelves are empty because modern retailers employ a just-in-time model of inventory management, meaning they don’t keep large quantities of goods in their backrooms or even at their own nearby warehouses.
In the past few weeks, some consumers bought months’ worth of toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and canned foods. On Monday, the Minnesota Grocers Association issued a statement asking the public to refrain from hoarding behavior.
It also asked that healthy people stay out of groceries during the first hour they are open every morning. Several store chains joined in asking customers to give the first hour of the day to people who need things more: the elderly, immune-compromised, health care workers and first responders.
Grocery stores in the region also banded together in a buying strategy designed to take some pressure off wholesalers, including the region’s leader, UNFI Inc., which has a giant warehouse in Hopkins. The retailers are making less-than-full orders of high-demand products in order to keep goods flowing.
“The good thing is we’ve all come together as competitors and said we need to discipline our stores to only order a couple of cases at a time so we don’t overwhelm UNFI,” Mike Oase, chief operating officer for Kowalski’s Markets, said. “And then try to help the public understand to buy what you need, but not more than what you need.”
The wholesalers have responded by increasing their orders placed with goods manufacturers and food processors. Golden Valley-based General Mills said it is seeing an increase in short-term customer orders in the U.S.
“Our production facilities are running to help our retailers meet this demand, which could look like increased production of some products,” the company said in a statement.
The risk for farmers and food processors comes if they lose vital workers to the illness. That hasn’t happened yet, but some farmers are taking proactive measures.
School closures have already forced hog farmer Greg Boerboom to strategize with employees and their families to figure out who can work the hog barns. He sells about 300,000 hogs a year from a network of farms near Marshall.
“The school closure thing we’re talking about, we’ve all had time and we can make the adjustment,” Boerboom said. “But if we have the actual virus among one of our workers, well then that’s where suddenly you may not have anyone show up for 14 days.”
He said his barns need 20 employees to stay operational. A skeleton crew would be six, but that works for only a day or two at a time.
“Unlike a plant, the pigs need care. They need to be fed, taken care of every day. You can’t just stack the inventory on the shelf and lock the door for two weeks,” Boerboom said.
All pork plants of Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corp. are up and running with workers showing up for their shifts, a spokesman said.
Cargill has not had to shut down any of its processing plants. It conducts temperature checks on workers at its most critical facilities and offers flexible schedules for workers whose lives are affected by school closures and other disruptions.
The company has also banned all visitors from its plants to minimize exposure risk for its employees.
If the government calls for a quarantine, like in China and Italy, Cargill’s Kimmelshue said its plants will remain open.
“In each of those cases, the government declared medical and food producers essential facilities, keeping them open and supporting through special certifications,” she said. “We expect the same to happen here, as food is a basic need.”
Star Tribune staff writers John Ewoldt and Kavita Kumar contributed to this report.