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Food Industry: Tell Americans There Is Plenty of Food
Empty shelves are visible at a Target retail store during an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Contra Costa County, Dublin, California, March 15, 2020.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Food Industry: Tell Americans There Is Plenty of Food

Hank Cardello

Like hand sanitizer at the local supermarket, reassurance for anxious grocery shoppers is in short supply as the COVID-19 pandemic looms over our nation. It’s time for the food industry to find its voice and show some leadership. It needs to tell consumers with confidence that our supplies of food are secure and safe. But their response so far has been as empty as the toilet paper aisle.

As the number of cases of COVID-19 grows and the trajectory of the crisis is paralleling that exhibited in Italy and Iran, consumers’ lives are being turned upside down and many are panicked that they won’t be able to buy enough food or other critical supplies. Pre-apocalyptic scenes are taking place at supermarkets and big box stores around the nation, with consumers stocking up as if the end of days were coming. Photos and videos of long lines in the supermarket parking lot, empty shelves and vicious fights over paper towels have become viral, stoking the fear and feeding the frenzy. Even Gun sales are up.

This siege mentality is hard to overcome, especially when many of us don’t know if we will be sick and quarantined and unable to buy groceries. What will help is strong reassurance – not only from our political leaders, but also from the companies that make the critical supplies that will get us through the pandemic. We need them to declare confidently and loudly that our food and sanitary supplies will always be there. While the president last Sunday, accompanied by a handful of food industry executives, announced that “[food companies] are going to meet the needs of the public,” consumers were in turn admonished that they “shouldn’t go out and buy…Take it easy. Just relax.” Other soft messages, such as “ we’re doing our best, ” and “our supply chain will adjust” are being bandied about by industry trade groups.

We can do better than “Heckuva job, Brownie.”

To be fair, I believe the industry trade associations have been toiling on the job by sharing information on coronavirus with their members. The Consumer Brands Association is hosting peer-to-peer exchange calls and webinars to compare information and insights and serving as the industry’s voice with government leadership. FMI has issued a Coronavirus and Pandemic Preparedness guide for its members.

But real leadership means being bold and decisive in times of crisis. Now is the time for the food industry to find its voice. A few companies have stepped up recently: Campbell Soup CEO Mark Clouse announced on March 4th that the company will crank up production of soup, and Giant Eagle, an Ohio supermarket chain, publicly assuaged customers yesterday that product is on the way and that their stores will remain open.

Meanwhile in other industries, the leading biopharmaceutical trade organizations, PhRMA and Bio, ran a full page ad in today’s Wall Street Journal announcing ““Our Commitment to Beat Coronavirus.()”: ” Amazon is booting price-gougers attempting to profiteer from the COVID-19 crisis and making more room in its warehouses for medical supplies, household staples and other critically needed products. LVMH, which owns luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, is shifting from making perfume to hand sanitizer, which they will deliver free to health authorities. Ring Central, a teleconferencing company, is offering three months of free service to schools, health care organizations and nonprofits. And Verizon declared in advertising “We’re here. And we’re ready,” waiving late fees and increasing data allowances for students who need to study from home.

So why isn’t the food industry demonstrating this sort of leadership?

What’s noticeably missing is that nobody has made a strong, public, industry statement – plastered in major national newspapers, social media and TV – that food manufacturers and grocery retailers stand behind ensuring that there will be NO shortage of food for Americans during the coronavirus crisis. We need the trade associations representing these groups to tell us that by a certain date everything we need – pasta, rice, beans, bottled water, paper goods – will be available. We need them to share their specific plans for cranking up production, ensuring safe transit to food retailers, and keeping the shelves full.

America is hungry for some good news about our grocery supplies. I’m asking the big food companies and their trade associations: When will it come?

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