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Apr 04, 2020
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WASHINGTON — The nation could begin to see food shortages for some products if the people working on the supply chain lack personal protective equipment, warns an internal Trump administration document obtained by Yahoo News.

Empty supermarket shelves have become one of the most jarring images of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened 270,000 Americans and killed 7,000. But so far, there have been no food shortages, despite 90 percent of the American population being under state-enforced lockdown orders.

And despite the difficulties people have had in obtaining certain foods, like pasta, grocery stores are generally well stocked. Government officials have argued that any temporary shortages are the result of unprecedented demand, as people have bought more than usual, rather than an actual supply-chain breakdown.

“I want to assure you that our food supply chain is sound,” Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, said on March 20.

That, however, could change if the people who make, package and deliver food lack personal protective equipment, or PPE, including face masks and gloves, according to the internal document shared with Yahoo News, which provides a daily update on various aspects of the coronavirus response, including details ranging from state-by-state infections to hospital capacity and test sites.

A delivery worker outside a Whole Foods Market on Wednesday in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
A delivery worker outside a Whole Foods Market on Wednesday in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
The document, titled “Senior Leadership Brief COVID-19” and dated April 2, 2020, bears the seals of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. It contains a brief description of findings made by the Food Supply Chain Task Force on the availability of PPE.

Such equipment has been in short supply in hospitals, where doctors and nurses are routinely exposed to high amounts of coronavirus. The food industry also relies on a variety of protective equipment for food safety.

The April 2 briefing warns that the task force had completed an analysis and there could be “commodity impacts if current PPE inventory is exhausted.” There would be shortages of milk within 24 hours and of fresh fruits and vegetables “within several days.” The document estimates that “meat, poultry, seafood, and processed eggs” would become scarce within a period of two to four weeks, while “dry goods and processed foods inventories” — that is, the non-perishables that are pantry staples — could become scarce “as soon as four weeks” after face masks and gloves run out across the food supply chain.

The document is a warning, and is not descriptive of the current situation. There are no signs of a food shortage across the nation. But the coronavirus pandemic is putting strain on every aspect of the food supply chain, from the people who raise and grow what we eat to the people who deliver it to our supermarkets.

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