ARLINGTON, VA. — Food industry associations in a March 18 letter urged federal, state and local leaders for an exemption from the gathering restrictions and curfews set forth to contain the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak as consumer panic buying wipes out grocery store shelves.

“Gathering restrictions and curfews are critical for protecting Americans and helping to flatten the curve, but the unintended consequences of those efforts could be detrimental to the production of essential goods for our fellow Americans,” said Geoff Freeman, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Brands Association, Arlington, Va. “Our industry is working around the clock to manufacture the products Americans need now more than ever. Our supply chain and production capabilities are strong, and they will remain strong so long as we are permitted to operate at full capacity.”

The US Department of Homeland Security declared critical infrastructure industries, including food and agriculture, are exempt from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance to ban gatherings of 50 or more people. Decisions to follow CDC guidance are made at the state and local level, however, and while some states and localities have exempted food, beverage and CPG manufacturing facilities, others have not.

“This lack of uniformity is leading to significant confusion and could further deteriorate if a level of consistency across states and municipalities is not achieved quickly,” stated the letter, signed by 60 groups representing food, beverage and household goods industries.

The letter also asked that essential supply chain components such as ingredient transportation, warehouses, distribution centers and retail stores are considered critical infrastructure and exempt from the restrictions.

Current supply chain challenges are due to surging demand, not a lack of supply, said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for FMI – The Food Industry Association, Arlington.

“Our industry has proven itself time after time in periods of emergency, as evidenced by its strength and confidence in the ability to meet the needs of the communities it serves, no matter the circumstance,” Baker said. “We are fortunate to have strong public-private partnerships with government agencies to ensure our supply chain remains both nimble and effective. Currently, we are asking for help to relax regulatory issues to get as many customers served as they can, specifically SNAP and WIC customers.

“Our European members have been tremendously helpful in communicating lessons learned with us, but we are re-writing the playbook in this current environment. Our goal is to keep Americans fed and our employees safe.”

Access to labor may be a challenge for the industry.

“We don’t know yet what impacts the virus will have on the availability of labor across the food supply chain,” said Lowell Randel, vice president of government and legal affairs at Global Cold Chain Alliance, Arlington. “The food industry is taking steps to protect their workforce, but it is important that food facilities have priority access to testing, when needed, to ensure that facilities can maintain a healthy and adequate workforce. Strong cleaning and sanitation protocols are in place across the food industry, and facilities will need to have continued access to cleaning/sanitizing products.

“In talking with our colleagues in Europe, they tell us that food facilities are continuing to operate, but access to labor has been a challenge for some. They have relayed that the biggest lesson is to take action quickly to implement social distancing in facilities to help slow the spread of the virus.

“Our members in the US are already adopting strategies for social distancing, including managing shifts, staggering breaks and allowing additional time for cleaning and sanitation.”