Not long ago most food retail crises involved fairly predictable elements.
Typically a storm or other natural disaster would strike a community. In short order supermarkets would get the trucks rolling and trading partners would rally together to bring relief to the ravaged area.
But dynamics have changed with new types of crises. The threat of terrorism drove concerns about food security. The specter of avian flu raised fears of a pandemic.
Then there was Katrina and the other hurricanes from last year. Few had seen devastation on that scale. The federal government drew unrelenting criticism for its response. Federal officials are now trumpeting this message to businesses: Don't count on us to save the day in future disasters.
Consider this recent quote from Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, who warned food businesses to prepare for how they would continue to operate and serve the public in the event of a protracted bird flu crisis: "Any community that fails to prepare with the expectation that the federal government will at the last moment be able to come to the rescue will be tragically wrong."
So what is the state of overall disaster planning in the food distribution industry today? Much of the current preparation by companies - and the federal government - has shifted from food security to natural disasters, said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington (See Page 30 for a wide-ranging interview with Hammonds). That's partly because the industry has already absorbed best practices for food security, but also because the food supply isn't considered one of the likeliest targets for a terrorist event.
Food industry companies are now focusing on how to help communities rebound from a future Katrina-type event. That's why, for example, Publix just said it will install 400 generators in hurricane-prone locations at a price tag of some $100 million.
Meanwhile, FMI and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have formed a joint committee for natural disaster planning that will promote best practices and collaboration and confer with government officials. FMI also produced a position paper on how companies can prepare for bird flu, a virus that could pose the greatest of all challenges if it ever reached human transmissible form.
These association efforts make sense, but how can we know if industry collaboration will result in reducing risks? One way to judge is to look at the recent past. Consider the industry's campaign against a different threat: foodborne illness. Hammonds noted the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that the incidences of infections from a number of pathogens under study are either stable or declining, which is certainly good news. In that report, the CDC pointed to the Partnership for Food Safety Education's Fight BAC! program on safe food handling as a useful educational resource for consumers. (Hammonds is the current board chairman of the Partnership.) It seems industry programs do have an impact after all.
But there's not much time to reflect on victories. Disaster is a moving target. Priorities need to shift faster than hurricane winds. There's only one thing we can be sure of: If a crisis hits and companies aren't prepared, there will be lots of blame to go around.