(The Center Square) - As Pennsylvania braces for another month of social distancing, state officials pleaded with residents to stop panic buying and supply hoarding.
There’s more than enough for everyone, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding says, and there will continue to be thanks to an industry long prepared for the disruptions a viral outbreak can cause.
"Pennsylvania's supply chain is solid – farmers, production facilities, and truckers are all still working," Redding said. "Buying more than you need only hurts other Pennsylvanians; it hurts those working to provide these essentials, it hurts your neighbors, and it hurts our food banks."
Chris Herr, executive vice president of the PennAg Industries Association, said the state’s farmers understand the threat of animal borne pathogens better than most. Last year, the Department of Agriculture placed limits on livestock coming into the state after an outbreak of African Swine Fever in China killed one quarter of the world’s pigs.
The criticism came on strong, Herr said, but the decision was a good one – decimating just one link in the food supply chain could wreak havoc in society and it’s a threat the agriculture industry beats back every day.
“In this emergency situation, I think the recognition of agriculture as essential has been monumental to keeping it moving,” Herr said. “This idea of a pandemic is something we deal with everyday. You don’t get into a sow production barn without taking all of your clothes off, showering and putting on clothes provided to you. If you want to get into a barn, that’s what you have to do."
So when the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the nation, farmers knew what to expect. Still, unforeseen kinks – at grocery stores, at food processors, amongst consumers themselves – mean the reality of Pennsylvania’s abundance of food is obfuscated by empty shelves and supply rations.
“It’s not an issue of whether or not there’s enough,” Herr said. “It has more to do with the supply chain processes that we put into place.”
Herr said Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide closures – including restaurants and schools – have triggered a shift for agriculture businesses accustomed to a clientele base that is mostly in food service. One meat producer his association represents, for example, typically sends 70 percent of their product to restaurants, schools and other custodial food services. Less than one third goes onto grocery store shelves.
“So the redistribution of that, the supermarkets have not adjusted to that as well,” Herr said. “We have farmers who are forced to dump milk because there’s too much of it in the supply chain. We’ve had to slow down the processing of meat and milk because they can’t get it to the supermarkets fast enough.”
Another association member, a food processing plant, said 300 employees didn't show up for work one day after Wolf issued a stay-at-home order for the county.
"That’s a problem when you want the supply chain filled," Herr said. "It's a real problem."
Alex Baloga, CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, agreed that food supply isn’t the problem at all – its the unprecedented demand for certain products and a lack of other options forcing retailers to limit purchases.
“Panic buying and hoarding is really what’s causing shortages on the shelves,” he said. “That’s where it’s really coming from.”
Baloga said shoppers have less choices now, too, when it comes to feeding their families. Wolf’s mandate shuttering non-essential businesses indefinitely means restaurants and other food services who grocery stores once competed with are no longer available.
“Usually people would have other options, but now, this is it,” he said. "That’s where some of the impact is coming from. Obviously it creates a situation where there’s more people coming at the same time to the same place and it puts a lot of pressure on these stores.”
Still, the state's food supply can outlast the restrictions on public life caused by the pandemic, officials said.
"The idea that you couldn’t get food ramps this up to a whole different level and so protecting our food supply and understanding that this is an essential part of our being has been our main focus," Herr said. "It really emphasizes what is essential in our lives."
The Department of Health reported 962 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 5,805. Some 74 residents have died and more than 600 remain hospitalized.
Wolf extended social distancing directives until April 30, in line with the federal government’s recommendations, and will place the entire state under a stay-at-home order on Wednesday. Nonessential businesses and schools will remain closed indefinitely.