The disruption caused by the novel coronavirus has created challenges never before seen.
As governors mandate sweeping workforce and other restrictions in the name of social distancing — as has happened in nearly a dozen states and counting — services labeled “essential” are exempt. So, while some manufacturers announce production suspensions and other businesses shift to skeleton crews, the "essential" cold chain industry is up and running.
"I think just fundamentally, the supply chain is very resilient, and our members and their customers are very, very resilient," Lowell Randel, VP of government and legal affairs for the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA), told Supply Chain Dive in an interview. "They're very adaptable and they are committed to making sure that the food supply chain is going to work." Alliance members include firms in warehousing, temperature-controlled trucking, controlled-environment construction and international cold chain development.
"I think just fundamentally, the supply chain is very resilient, and our members and their customers are very, very resilient."
VP of government and legal affairs, GCCA
Some food producers have adjusted production lines to the new normal, Randel said, focusing on targeted production for retail, which means certain warehouses have begun taking in a different mix of products. Various companies are also switching to full pallets, which can be moved more efficiently than individual cases.
"I'm hearing reports that some companies on both the production side and the retail outlet side are saying, 'Let's focus in on full pallets and not have large numbers of SKUs or lots of case picking needs,'" Randel said.
So, while the public sees slower outbound production, inbound is chugging along.
An Americold spokesperson told Supply Chain Dive via email that the company is "maintaining its standard operational model" to handle changes in grocery demand. Randel noted warehouses are familiar with hikes in demand when people are preparing for severe weather, although nothing at the scale seen with the novel coronavirus. And complying with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for COVID-19 has yielded some changes in protocol.
"We are reinforcing our standard health protocols and increasing our cleaning schedules, because prevention is critical to ensuring the health and safety of our associates and protecting the integrity of the supply chain," the Americold spokesperson said. “In response to COVID-19, we are also promoting the importance of social distancing. The nature of our warehouse work is naturally socially distant, but we are rearranging and/or adding shifts to limit the number of associates on breaks and in the locker rooms at any given time."
These adaptations may have an impact on day-to-day operations but won't necessarily have a large impact on overall efficiency, Randel said. However, warehouses depend on the people who staff them, and managers are keeping an eye out for new personnel rules from the CDC and other federal agencies.
"The nature of our warehouse work is naturally socially distant, but we are rearranging and/or adding shifts to limit the number of associates on breaks and in the locker rooms at any given time."
Americold, GCCA and other stakeholders are asking for regulatory help make sure people can continue to work safely. According to a document Americold emailed to Supply Chain Dive — a document representative of views from GCCA, Americold, Lineage Logistics and United States Cold Storage — cold chain stakeholders are requesting:
- Exemptions from gathering and curfew bans that are starting to take effect.
- Priority access to cleaning and sanitation supplies and other tools should they experience an outbreak and need to quickly restore operations. (Randel specifically mentioned hand sanitizer in his conversation with Supply Chain Dive. It’s not an issue yet, but "we’re highlighting it to the government, we’re highlighting it with industry partners, so we stay ahead of it," he said.)
- Assistance with access to and administration of COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the event of facility exposure.
- That ports and transportation networks be kept open to retain Americans’ access to international products, with priority access for food and food-related items.
- The promotion of business liquidity to pay employees and make other payments through grants and interest-free loans.
Randel said GCCA members are contingency-planning for personnel decreases due to illness. They’re looking at staffing firms and considering workers in sectors seeing a slowdown during the pandemic that could translate their skills to warehouses.
"That's one of the big unknowns that we just don't have a good feel for," Randel said of the future of staffing during COVID-19. “Other than that, I think as long as we can continue to produce food, we can continue to move it through the system. We should be able to stay strong."