We’re not pessimists. Quite the contrary these days, especially with food production undergoing a renaissance of improved production/sourcing practices, food quality and safety. However, it’s clear supply chains aren’t cooperating.

This week, we review anecdotes from farms, food processing and channels that illustrate the latest impediments. And only some are pandemic-related. A pair of articles in The Wall Street Journal and The Daily Scoop deftly summarize the overall situation, with CNN chiming in on how supply chain woes affect food security.

Down, on the Farm

Luckily, few weather issues have hampered U.S. agricultural efforts this winter. But a number of unrelated obstacles have cropped up, causing concern about cascading effects on an already-compromised supply chain.

  • Politico summarized a Department of Homeland Security travel restriction that mandates vaccination for travelers entering the U.S. Farmers dependent on seasonal labor will feel the brunt of this.
  • Citrus greening, a disease that stunts the growth of orange plants, is devastating Florida’s signature crop, with the USDA predicting the smallest crop since World War II (CBS Miami).
  • Modern Farmer’s Dan Nosowitz described how avian flu, which decimated the poultry industry in 2015, has been detected in wild birds in the Carolinas.
  • An Associated Press story suggested the price of fertilizer has doubled in the past decade, forcing some Midwest farmers to curb its use and risk smaller harvests.
  • In contrast to these, relief from regulation might be in sight for some farmers, who welcome a Supreme Court review of the definition of “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act (Feedstuffs). Agricultural groups, like the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the rule restricts building rights on private property.

Trouble in the Middle

A lack of labor has flummoxed food processors and manufacturers, with ongoing outbreaks of omicron compounding attrition from career changes. Additionally, analogous issues arose in adjacent industries.

  • Shortages of truck drivers limit how quickly food can travel. Investigate Midwest highlighted how companies are raising wages to combat turnover. Meanwhile, the Biden administration piloted a program to allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drive big rigs across state lines. On second thought … maybe it’s worth the wait.
  • Train transport has its own problems. CBS Los Angeles reported that thieves have taken to robbing containers on slow-moving rail cars.
  • Girl Scout cookies are the latest product in short supply. The Washington Post scooped the story on obstacles to Adventurefuls production in the Washington, D.C. region.
  • CNN intercepted a letter from Kraft Heinz to wholesalers that foretold double-digit increases in product prices to account for rising input costs.
  • Bloomberg writer Thomas Buckley broke news that food manufacturing giant Unilever planned to cut 1,500 management positions as part of a restructuring plan. The company will also split its ice cream brands (Ben & Jerry’s, Klondike, Magnum) into a separate division from a de-emphasized food group.
  • After tornadoes hit Mayfield, Kentucky, Pilgrim’s Pride boosted worker pay by $2 per hour to maintain its workforce (Reuters).
  • The National Pork Producers Council shared an Iowa State University report that concluded higher pork prices are not tied to meatpacker consolidation but “strong demand for U.S. pork as well as added costs and labor shortages at every level of the supply chain.”

Changing Channels

The omicron variant continues to cause workers to call in sick, as retail and foodservice continue to struggle with a labor shortage. The exhausted workers who remain work long hours in short-staffed stores and are increasingly discussing unionization. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to block the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, many corporations nixed vaccine mandates.

  • The Wall Street Journal reported that baristas at Starbucks locations around the country “are using online meetings and social media to discuss unionizing and to seek guidance from company employees in Buffalo, NY.”
  • Starbucks dropped its vaccine requirement for U.S. workers following the Supreme Court decision. The Associated Press noted that big companies like Target and McDonald’s “stayed mum on their vaccination plans for frontline workers.”
  • More than 8,000 Denver-area workers voted to approve a new three-year contract with Kroger-owned King Soopers grocery stores, ending an eight-day strike (Supermarket News). The new agreement includes higher wages, as well as better healthcare and pension benefits.
  • The New York Times revealed that fast-food menu prices increased 8% following rising ingredient prices and hourly wage increases, as well as shrinking portion sizes. The increases haven’t turned off customers or hurt the bottom line, with McDonald’s revenue expected to “hit a five-year high of more than $23 billion.”
  • In partnership with the University of Louisville, Taco Bell is launching a business school for franchisees, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. The six-week training program, where selected participants will receive a scholarship to cover tuition, is designed to help underrepresented groups “tear down barriers to ownership.”

“When you have a big buyer insist on standards, I don’t care what industry you’re in, that can bring about great change.”

Temple Grandin, Colorado State University (The New York Times)

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Heirloom Hack

As many reality TV shows as there are, we still didn’t expect to see Dog the Bounty Hunter crossover into food news. Farm Journal covered the pursuit of infamous agro-conman Jamie Lawhorne and boy is it worth a read: “Just after 6 p.m., Honea, concealed body armor in place, entered the hotel with a single objective: Bag the engineer behind some of the wildest swindles in agricultural history.”

Tapping Temple’s Wisdom

The New York Times recently interviewed Temple Grandin to discuss how autism has affected her career and perception of the pandemic. The Colorado State professor spent some time on her work with the beef industry: “When you have a big buyer insist on standards, I don’t care what industry you’re in, that can bring about great change. … I don’t want talk. I want measurements. Something I can observe with my eyes.”

That’s a Wrap?

Noting “the tide is finally turning on food and drink packaged in single-use plastic, both in and out of the home,” The Wall Street Journal explored the rise of plastic wrap to kitchen staple status. It may seem like it has always been around, but plastic wrap was only introduced in the 1930s. Early advertising dubbed it to be “superior to fruit skin,” before it dethroned wax paper as America’s main kitchen food wrap. There’s a tagline.

Dry-ish January

Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel reflected on reduced alcohol consumption in January, and asked several experts if moderate drinking is actually healthy. The replies vary widely from “I have a friend who asserts that tequila does indeed ward off colds” to “drinking 280 grams of alcohol per week (about 20 average-size drinks in the U.S.) is associated with a 38% increase in stroke risk.”