I read with interest a note from Professor Joe Lederman, Principal of FoodLegal and Professor at Deakin University, published in Australian Food News today. Prof Lederman has raised an important issue: the readiness of our food chains in a pandemic scenario. I wholeheartedly agree with his views: in my submission to the National Innovation Review, I raised the need to look at pandemic scenarios and contingency planning as research subjects in future R&D related to food chains.
The topic of the influenza contagion in Mexico is close to my heart. My family and I had never seen any radical measures to avoid contagion such as having soccer matches at closed doors and cancelling religious activities in a Sunday. For the average Mexican, the idea of not socializing is almost unfathomable. Yet, that is what my family and friends are currently experiencing, particularly in Mexico City.
Prof Ledermanâ€™s views led me to drop my concerns about my loved ones for a while and consider the food supply chain in Mexico. One point of concern, for example, is that food chains in Mexico are highly centralized around urban markets, especially in Mexico City. For example, Central de Abastos is the largest market in Mexico and it is located in what used to be the outskirts of the city. Now it is close to the centre of it. I will post a picture tomorrow because I think you have to see the size of. It helps to understand how a single market was able to hold about 40 % of all fruits and vegetables consumed in Mexico, and 80 % of those consumed in Mexico City by 2001. Take into consideration that Mexicoâ€™s population is nearly 110 million and 22 million live in Mexico City.
Now, considering that the focal point of the contagion is in Mexico City, What are the alternatives for assuring a viable food distribution in Mexico now?
Points of consideration are:
â€¢ About 80% of the population is concentrated in urban areas.
â€¢ The distance between Mexico City and the other major cities (Monterrey and Guadalajara) is 1,000 km and 500 km, respectively.
â€¢ About 90% of food reaches consumers through retail. This includes major supermarkets, warehouses and the independent segment, which distributes about 60-65% of food. It also includes the mom & popâ€™s shop operations, which are very much alive and kicking in Mexico.
â€¢ The foodservice sector is growing at a fast pace; eating food in restaurants and street stalls is a daily occurrence for the average Mexican.
â€¢ There is a substantial underinvestment in transport infrastructure: roads, rail and ports are insufficient as it is to distribute food efficiently. But if we had to choose one mode, it would be road.
My initial thoughts are:
a) Relocate some Central de Abastos operations to areas surrounding Mexico City. This is a good alternative for small, nimble operators but the limits on infrastructure available (e.g. storage) would not allow this to be a solution for large distribution companies.
b) Shift the distribution to the larger cities away from Mexico City. Given road transport as a viable option, it would take 10 hrs for a shipment to travel from Monterrey to MC and4- 5 hrs from Guadalajara (the Guadalajara- Mexico segment has better road conditions). So it sounds like Guadalajara would be a good options for this.
c) For dry/canned goods, keep Central de Abastos as the main DC.
d) For administrative functions in the food supply chain, promote the option of working from home.
e) For the unavoidable physical activity needed, implement shifts that see a lower concentration of people in the workplace.
f) Supermarkets could implement vehicles (e.g. vans, minivans) as shop fronts. The strategy here is to bring the goods to the population, rather than people travelling to supermarkets for shopping. A particularly good option for less mobile population.
There will be a second update to this blog tomorrow. But please feel free to contribute to this discussion further.