Food Supply Risks Don’t Stop at Coronavirus

In recent days, the never-ending flood tide of reporting on the coronavirus pandemic has included a spate of articles detailing the indirect effects of the pandemic on food supply.  With drastically reduced demand by restaurants and schools, and challenges in supply-chain realignment, large quantities of fresh foods and beverages with short shelf life such as milk, eggs, and produce (as well as beer, ale, lager, and cider in the United Kingdom) are being destroyed because they cannot be timely delivered to retail customers before they spoil.

When it comes to key characteristics of the coronavirus itself, it may be that – as Professor Erik Angner recently wrote – “knowledge is in short supply.”  At the same time, the sheer volume of information about this virus’s effects is so pervasive that it may tend to dominate the thinking of risk analysts, to the exclusion of other potential viral risks to food supplies that also deserve monitoring.

Here are two recent examples of such additional potential risks:

  • On April 9, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “confirmed the presence of highly pathogenic H7N3 avian influenza (HPAI) in a commercial turkey flock in Chesterfield County, South Carolina.” Although the USDA assured the public that the affected premises were quarantined and birds on the property “depopulated [i.e., destroyed] to prevent the spread of the disease,” it has separately stated that HPAI “is a very contagious and deadly disease for poultry . . . [that] can spread from flock to flock within a matter of days.”  The theoretical risk to the general chicken and turkey population in the United States could be substantial.  When the last HPAI outbreak occurred in 2014-15, according to Quartz, “[m]ore than 50 million chickens and turkeys across 15 states were killed” between December 2014 and June 2015 in an attempt to stop the HPAI spread.
  • On April 12, the South China Morning Post reported that a virus known as Decapod iridescent virus 1 (Div1) has infected about a quarter of the shrimp farms in Guangdong Province, China. Div-1 reportedly is not harmful to humans, but could have devastating effects in Guangdong, “the heart of production in China,” and more generally on Chinese shrimp production because of its “terrifying” infection rate and lethality to shrimp.

To be clear, neither of these reports indicates any direct risks from these viruses to the human populations in their respective areas.  Taken together, however, they indicate that strategic-risk and food-supply risk assessment teams must continue to cast their nets broadly in identifying and tracking virus-related challenges to national and international food production and distribution.  As Hamlet might have said lately, “There are more viruses in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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