ARLINGTON, VA. — Geoff Freeman, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), is seeking consistency. As he and the members of the CBA confront the coronavirus crisis, they are struggling to navigate a myriad of supply chain disruptions that occur when state and local governments take action to stem the spread of the virus.
A March 19 guidance issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the US Department of Homeland Security that identified food and agriculture production as one of 16 critical infrastructure sectors has helped. The guidance was crucial, because as state and local authorities ordered the closing of businesses and issued stay-at-home orders to residents, critical infrastructure sectors needed waivers to continue operating and employees to work. Complicating the issue is it is the responsibility of state and local governments to adopt CISA’s guidance that allows businesses deemed critical to operate.
“Getting policymakers to understand food and agriculture’s role as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure was last week’s big issue,” Freeman said. “This week’s issue has been getting inputs to those plants. It’s not just about food and ag. It’s that aluminum can that is essential for a lot of different companies. It’s the label manufacturers being closed. They are critical to this industry, because labels go on almost every product produced. We are helping policymakers understand the totality of the entire value chain.”
Freeman said his priorities fall into three buckets — keeping facilities open, getting the workforce to the facilities and keeping the nation’s roads and rails open to get product to market.
“We’re fortunate we were able to work with the Department of Homeland Security on language showing food and ag is critical infrastructure,” he said. “So, we can start by pointing to that, but we’re putting out a lot of fires. Policymakers are responsive once the issues are raised, but we are losing 24 to 48 hours raising the issue and working through it.”
Two other significant challenges the CBA is dealing with are employee safety and transportation. Freeman said the industry needs more clarity from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration about what companies must do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. He referenced a document published by New York City that lays out how medical workers should manage any exposure to the virus.
“It is very prescriptive about what to do,” he said. “We have not received such prescriptive guidance at the federal level and that is unfortunate.”
Transportation is an issue, because the nation’s supply chain crosses numerous state and local municipal borders, some of which are issuing orders mandating residents shelter in place and businesses close.
“We’ve had some hiccups,” Freeman said. “In Pennsylvania, the governor closed truck stops. In other places they are closing hotels. What’s a trucker to do when they need a place to sleep at the end of a long day?”
International trade and hiring are two issues Freeman sees needing attention in the future.
“As we adapt to the new normal, which we are, an issue we are focusing on is the trade side and getting ingredients into the country,” he said. “We have less coming in from China and from other destinations. Those are issues that need to be addressed.
“We also have to address the strain on the workforce. Everyone is working at 120% and people will get burned out. We have to figure out ways we can link to employees who have lost their jobs.”
Freeman took the helm of the CBA 20 months ago and readily admits COVID-19 has placed the food and agriculture industries in uncharted territory.
“Let’s acknowledge that this is the biggest shift of an industry’s supply chain any of us has ever experienced,” he said. “This is Thanksgiving demand over multiple weeks. The supply chain was not prepared and had never previously had to execute against such demand.
“It (the supply chain) is proving resilient. Industry adaptation has been remarkable. There is an all-hands-on-deck attitude and it shows how the food supply chain is the backbone of America at this point.”