Food & Fitness After 50: What Does Disruption in the Food Supply Chain Mean for You?

grocey bagMost of us have changed our grocery shopping and eating habits while stay-at-home orders have taken effect. We’re not eating out as often and cooking at home is taking hold. Even as states reopen for business, we will feel the lasting effects of COVID-19 on our shopping and eating habits. But we all need to eat and some of the headlines are frightening…from meat processing plants shutting down, to essential food service and food industry workers becoming sick or losing their health and livelihood, to potential shortages of our favorite foods in the grocery store.

While there is agreement that our farmers and ranchers can produce enough food for us, the problem lies with the just-in-time distribution system. Normally, we don’t think much about how an ear of corn got from the field to our table or how the pork loin we plan to grill for dinner gets from a pig farmer to our grocery store. But, in times like these, a break in any link in the supply chain causes disruption that affects us all.

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The Big Picture

Let’s start with a big picture look from Christi Dixon, Agriculture Engagement & Advocacy Manager for Bayer. Bayer’s Crop Science Division is an agriculture company that supports farmers around the world. Christi breaks down four major points:

  1. There are disruptions in all segments of the industry. “Most of the time our supply chain is a well-oiled machine, but it is delicate and is not quickly adaptable,” says Dixon. The food supply chain is meant to deliver, not just to our retail stores, but to institutions and restaurants. With most of us at home and restaurants closing and food service operations at schools, colleges, office buildings, and other institutions not ordering the amounts of foods they normally would, it is not possible to quickly pivot to move those foods and supplies to retail. “Not many of us can store a side of beef in our freezer or take delivery of a tanker truck of fresh milk,” explains Dixon.
  2. There are disruptions in the labor force. From closing borders to keeping the labor force safe, farmers and ranchers are challenged to get their crops or animals out of the fields and into the food chain. “People who don’t know about farming have a hard time understanding why unemployed restaurant wait staff can’t be hired to pick crops, but it is a specialized skilled job, performed under difficult environmental conditions, and training is needed to get the job done correctly,” Dixon explains. Switching to unskilled labor is a challenge faced by many farmers.
  3. There are disruptions in row crops and fruits and vegetables. In the Midwest, row crops, like corn, cotton, soy, and canola are in the field, but farmers will face hard decisions come harvest time. Dixon explains that our “import/export systems in are in flux and farmers operate in a global marketplace, and when markets usually open to farmers close or disappear, it puts them at a disadvantage.” Foods can linger in ports unable to be shipped to traditional markets.

Fruits and vegetables will face a similar problem. Dixon explains that “90% of our U.S. produce comes from California, and fruits and vegetable distribution will be impacted as states determine what can be transported across state lines.” And, fruits and vegetables are highly perishable so moving them quickly from the field to market is imperative.

  1. Transportation disruptions hurt farmers. Farmers have to pay transportation costs and with profit margins already razor thin, some farmers make hard decisions to mitigate financial loses by plowing under a crop or using raw milk to fertilize their fields than pay for transport. Crops like potatoes are really hurting…. from French fries to baked potatoes, as restaurants aren’t using potatoes in the quantities they used to.

This all sounds pretty grim, but Dixon says farmers and ranchers are resilient and are learning to pivot. “Working with local food banks, connecting farm bureaus to organizations such as Feeding America, selling direct to consumers via social media…. farmers and ranchers are trying to find markets for their products.” And, while the USDA doesn’t have the capacity to store all the fresh produce, milk, and meat, they are moving quickly to purchase some products to deliver to communities in need.

veggies in field“One thing consumers can do is continue to purchase fresh produce….it is safe and healthful and we need not fear consuming fresh produce,” adds Dixon. And, let your retailer know that you want to purchase milk, produce, and fresh meats, “retailers need to have a pull from consumers so those running the grocery stores know that it will be purchased.”

What about beef?

Another consumer concern is “where’s the beef?” Fresh beef was quick to disappear from grocery store shelves early in the pandemic, so I reached out to registered dietitian, Caitlin Mondelli, Director of Food and Health Communications for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, and asked her a few questions. Our discussion expanded to a virtual briefing on all things beef with Colin Woodall, CEO of National Cattleman’s Beef Association and several other experts in the beef industry.

Is there a shortage of beef?

It is important to note that there is not a shortage of cattle supply and there is beef available at retail and food service. However, disruptions to the supply chain may temporarily limit the availability of certain cuts or lead some retail and restaurant chains to limit purchases to ensure the continued availability of beef for all consumers. ”

Meat case consumerThe disruptions to the supply chain result in slow downs and reduced efficiency at packing plants. There are four major U.S. packers, and all are facing logistical challenges as they struggle with COVID-19. CDC and OSHA have provided guidelines to keep workers safe and the guidelines are being used to support the health and safety of the workers while providing beef to consumers at retail and food service institutions. Plants vary on how they monitor compliance with the safety guidelines.

As the slow downs at plants occur with increasing the distance between workers and slowing the production lines, it means that some areas of the country may find certain beef items out of stock while others may not. At the beginning of the pandemic there was a surge in consumer demand and panic buying. Now, consumers may find restrictions on the amount of product they can buy, and with summer grilling coming upon us, favorites like ground beef and certain steaks may be temporarily harder to find in some places.

Consumers can opt for other cuts of beef and there are helpful tips for how to use the various cuts of meat on the website, Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.

Some advocacy groups say that the beef industry is encouraging the USDA to remove food safety precautions to increase the speed at which meat is processed. What is the beef industry response to those claims?

The beef industry is not asking or encouraging the USDA to take down any food safety precautions. USDA inspections are critical to the safety of the product that gets to the consumer.

Should consumers be concerned about the safety of beef or packaging?

There are currently no reports of cattle testing positive for COVID-19. Additionally, the USDA is not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.” (for more on food safety in the time of COVID-19, check out this post by clicking here.)

We’ve seen reports of chicken and pork producers euthanize animals when they can’t be processed. What about cattle?

The industry term is “depopulation,” but that is not an issue for cattle. Ranchers can move cattle into a “holding pattern,” by providing maintenance feed and moving them to pasture. With spring comes more green grass and pasture lands for cattle to graze; poultry and pork producers often don’t have that option.

Consumers often ask me grass-fed beef is healthier or safer to eat than other beef; what is the best response?

Most people don’t realize that cattle spend the majority of their lives grazing on pasture. On average, over their lifetime, grain-finished cattle consume less than 11% of their diet as grain and close to 90% of their diet as forage (e.g., grass and hay) and other human-inedible plant leftovers (e.g., dried distiller’s grains). While grass-finished beef tends to be a little leaner (1-2 grams less fat per 3 ounce serving), in general, all varieties of beef are equally nutritious as all are a natural source of more than 10 essential nutrients, like protein, iron, zinc and many B vitamins.

The only significant nutritional differences between the various beef choices relate to the fat content of grain-finished beef versus grass-finished beef. Grass-finished beef tends to be a little leaner, but other variables contribute to leanness, including breed, age, grade and cut. In other words, lean cuts of grain-finished beef are plentiful too. Cuts with the word “round” or “loin” in the name typically meet the USDA definitions of lean. As far as type of fat, beef’s primary fatty acid source, whether grass- or grain-finished, is monounsaturated fat, the heart-healthy fat found in olive oil, followed by saturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats, including conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3, can be influenced by forage cattle graze on, but because of cattle’s unique ruminant digestive system, these types of fatty acids are usually low in beef.

For a good read on understanding disruptions on the food supply, especially the cattle supply chain, check out this article by Temple Grandin, published on May 3 on Forbes.com.

For more information on the food supply chain and industry response to COVID-19, check out these resources.

Click here to learn more on keeping your food and family safe.

Click here to get the most recent updates on beef and worker safety from National Cattleman’s Beef Association.

Click here to learn more about fresh produce safety and fresh food partnerships.

Click here to learn more about the USDA Farms to Families Food Box.

Click here for more on food supply chain disruptions.

Dr. Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.

Food & Fitness After 50: To Eat Meat or Not to Eat Meat?

high_protein_diet_s4_steakI grew up eating beef. Meat was always at the center of the dinner plate, except on Fridays when we usually got fish sticks. And, when I say beef, I’m not talking about the lean beef that I encourage meat eaters to eat. Juicy meatloaf, fatty burgers, pot roasts, and roast beef were staples. Add to that, prepared meats, like bologna, hot dogs, bacon, and sausage were also in heavy rotation.

A couple of weeks ago several research papers were published that rocked the nutrition world. OK, with everything else going on in the world, it may not have made it to your newsfeed, but for dietitians it was a big deal. Basically, the studies published in The Annals of Internal Medicine seemed to reverse decades old advice that eating red meat is bad for your health. The media headlines were fast and furious casting doubt on all nutrition science and warning us that once again, nutrition researchers are flip floppers.

We dislike flip flopping….be it from a politician or a health professional.

A lot of the discourse focused on the research methodology used to conduct nutrition studies. Here’s the bottom line: it is hard to study nutrition in people. It is easy to use cell cultures (in vitro research) or animals, like mice, because you can control cells or mice. With humans, it is not so easy. (I always used to tell my students to count the legs on the research subjects before accepting the study results to apply to humans.) If you think about it, it makes sense. Let’s say I asked you to complete a very long questionnaire asking you what you ate and how often you ate it over the past six months. Most of us can’t remember what we ate yesterday, let alone over an extended period. To add to the mix, how the food was prepared is hard to recall….was the fish broiled, fried, battered, blackened, or frozen? And, what about the portion size…do you know how to distinguish a 3-ounce from a 5-ounce hamburger patty?

Another confounding issue with nutrition research is when we change our eating habits there is usually substitution involved. Let’s say you substitute ground turkey for lean ground beef in your tacos. Unless the ground turkey is ground turkey breast (which is usually more costly), the lean ground beef may have a better nutrition profile.

But, today, I don’t want to get into all the arguments for or against eating beef. Many others have written on the topic with clarity and insight. For a detailed analysis, I like this piece from Cara Rosenbloom of Toronto in the Washington Post (no relation, but we joke we are distant cousins).

Another good read on nutrition controversies, including eating meat,  comes from ConscienHealth, one of my favorite daily reads.

And, check out this post from friend and colleague, Dr. Keith Ayoob that includes a discussion of the environmental impact of beef…hint, it might be lower than you think.

What I do want to share are tips for those who choose to eat meat. And, it is a choice. I consider myself a flexitarian; I don’t eat meat every day and when I do eat meat I choose lean cuts and small portions. Here are some tips that work for me.

Lean-BeefChoose lean cuts. By definition, a lean cut has 10 grams or less of total fat and less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat in 3.5-ounce serving. A quick way to know if a cut of meat is lean is to look for the word “round” or “loin” in the name. Pork loin, ground round, eye-of-round, or sirloin are all lean cuts. A 3-ounce (size of a deck of cards) lean cut of beef or pork provides about 20 grams of high-quality protein and 10 essential nutrients. A scoop of protein powder might also give you 20 grams of protein but is devoid of other nutrients.

Honey-Mustard-and-Herb-Oven-Roasted-Pork-Loin-3Lean pork is also a high-quality meat. Yes, there are fattier cuts of pork (ribs, bacon, sausage) but pork chops or pork loins are lean and contain quality proteins, packed with vitamins and minerals.

While there several plant-based burgers on the market today (Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat) they are not nutritionally superior to lean beef burgers. Enjoy them if you want to choose less meat but don’t think they are the most healthful options.

Consider a beef-plant mixture for a burger. One of my favorite way to make burgers is to mix about 2-ounces of lean ground beef with about ½ cup of finely chopped mushrooms and form patties for the grill. The mushrooms add volume and moistness as well as sneaking in a serving of veggies.

Grill flank steak and slice and serve over a salad brimming with veggies.

thLook for healthy substitutions at the deli counter. I like Boar’s Head Pastrami Seasoned Turkey Breast; not pastrami turkey, but turkey seasoned with pastrami seasoning, as a substitute for fattier pastrami. Use the turkey to make a healthier reuben by adding sauerkraut, a slice of Swiss cheese, tangy mustard on a rye bread. ((I have no connection to Boar’s Head meats!)

Whatever you choose, remember it is the total dietary pattern that makes for good health. So, for meat eaters, keep portions in check, pile on the veggies, healthy grains, and delicious fruit to balance your meals.

For more tips on healthy food choices, check out Food & Fitness After 50, available from Amazon and other book sellers.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.