KANSAS CITY, MO. – Retail food outlets and grocery store chains throughout the United States, many of which have struggled to keep shelves stocked as the coronavirus effect has many shoppers making extra purchases as a precaution, are now coping with even more demand as most foodservice outlets across the country are closing to prevent the spread of the virus. The logistics of shifting 100% of production to supplying retail customers has meat and poultry processors scrambling, including Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc.

Dean Banks, president of Tyson, said the company is working with retailers to increase shipments to retailers and that the scale of the company, which includes more than 100 US-based processing plants, is making the transition easier. A food shortage is not the issue at this time, Banks said.

During a March 20 interview on PBS, Greg Ferrara, president of the National Grocers Association (NGA), echoed Banks’ message that the empty shelves at retail food stores are not indicative of a supply shortage, rather an indication of most grocery stores struggling to restock quickly enough.

“When you go into a store, if you see empty shelves, it's taking us a while to get the product flowing through supply chain back to the stores,” Ferrara said, “but it is coming. It is coming through our warehouses. It is coming to the stores. There is plenty of supply in the supply chain. We just need time to catch up.”

Banks added, “Clearly stated, the food supply in the US is more than sufficient and we’re taking a variety of measures to meet the shifting increase in demand now, and to ensure a steady supply moving forward. There is plenty of food available. We are working closely with our retailer partners to ensure our products are on their shelves, so that you have what you need to feed your family.”

Tyson’s shift to a retail-only focus is unprecedented, but not insurmountable, Banks said.

“In some cases, our capability to shift processes in individual plants is allowing us to quickly pivot to producing retail items,” he said. “For example, changing packaging from a foodservice product to a retail product can occur quickly because of the built-in flexibility of our operations.

“While we’ve made moves like this before, this is the most significant shift we’ve ever initiated.”

NGA’s Ferrara said panic-induced buying is making a challenging situation worse than it really is.

“The problem is, we do have people who are buying a month's worth of groceries, as opposed to a week's worth of groceries,” he said. “And we ask people just to remain calm. Buy what you need for this week, for a week-and-a-half. Take care of yourself. And that will allow us to catch up; allow us to get the supply chain restocked, get product back on stores.”

Fueled by the prevalence of social distancing and preventing the risks associated with traditional food purchasing in stores, Ferrara acknowledged there is a significant increase in online purchases as well as customers opting for delivery and click-and-collect options.

“And I do think we will see an uptick in that going forward,” he said. “But people also do still enjoy going to the grocery store. They enjoy selecting their produce, selecting their meat. And I think that's going to continue for some time.”