New Bird Flu concerns: Should Australians be more prepared for a Pandemic?

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 5th January 2012

This article has been written as a special briefing for Australian Food News readers on an important topic.

The author Joe Lederman is the Managing Principal of FOODLEGAL.  He is  both a specialist lawyer and strategic consultant for food suppliers. He has expertise in food regulatory compliance and marketing law and is involved in all food sectors.

 

Experts from the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation are warning governments around the world to prepare again for the possibility of a serious outbreak of a deadly mutant of the avian influenza (also known as bird-flu) H5N1 strain.

This follows the news last Saturday 31 December 2011 of the bird-flu-inflicted death of a man in Shenzhen in mainland China, close to Hong Kong. Ten days earlier, other people came down with a similar disease in Egypt. The Chenzhen death was China’s first reported human mortality from the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus in 18 months.  A dead bird was found in Hong Kong’s New Territories less than two weeks earlier killed by the same virus.

Several more dead birds were found this week in Japan and in Hong Kong leading to culling of poultry and suspensions of imports of poultry products from affected areas.

According to the World Health Organization, the deadly virus has killed people in at least twelve countries since 2003, with 575 people infected resulting in a high mortality of 338 deaths. It is believed to date the human deaths have occurred through direct contact with either live or dead birds that were infected with the H5N1 virus.

Experts are now concerned that a further mutation of the H5N1 strain of the disease could allow easier human-to-human spread and cause a global pandemic in which millions might die.

FAO earlier warnings

In August 2011, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that the appearance of a variant strain of the virus in China and Vietnam was a concern, because it appeared to be able to sidestep the defences of existing vaccines. The FAO had earlier believed the strain could be controlled  by mass poultry culling, but since 2008 it has been spreading further amongst wild birds.

Early in 2011, the FAO announced that strain H5N1 remained entrenched amongst birds in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, and was predicted by the FAO as likely to spread in Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, the Korean peninsula, Japan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal and Mongolia.

By early August 2011, Cambodia had already registered eight cases of human infection (all believed to be from contact with infected birds) over eight months, all of them fatal.

The  FAO in August 2011 also said the coming fall (autumn) months or early part of winter in the northern hemisphere could generate an increased flare-up of  infections  of migratory bird-affected viruses stretching from eastern Asia all the way to Siberia and the Arabian Peninsula and perhaps the Black Sea basin.

Australia’s Current State of Preparation and the ‘Pantry List’

As early as 2005, work in Australia was begun by various working parties of major industry participants in liaison with the Federal department of agriculture, fisheries and forestry and other government agencies concerning a number of supply vulnerabilities in pandemic scenarios.

As part of this work, an emergency planning checklist was prepared for Australian households through a retailer-funded website (www.pantrylist.com.au). However, the website was given minimal publicity and an anticipated community TV campaign and brochure-drop for more publicity never proceeded.

Concerns were privately expressed amongst food and grocery industry participants that any stronger message expressing a sense of emergency might trigger panic-buying.

Lessons of the Brisbane 2011 Flood and New Orleans 2005 Flood

The nature of panic -buying was experienced when the Brisbane River flooded the inner city of the Queensland capital in early January 2011.  A similar experience occurred in New Orleans following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the USA in 2005.

During the Brisbane flood crisis, there appeared to be a very ad hoc and uncoordinated government response, both at State and Federal levels, to address the logistical problems of food and grocery distribution.

In Brisbane riverside suburbs such as Toowoong, supermarket shelves were almost instantly cleared out by panic-buying shoppers who realized that food and household supplies would become scarce given the electricity blackouts, personnel absences, fuel shortages and traffic dislocation at the same time.

Research studies  indicate that panic-buying caused serious food and household shortages in New Orleans immediately in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One study found that one of the difficulties for New Orleans was that the population was predominantly poor and among those least likely to have excess food supplies at home. Poorer people on average are more frequent visitors to supermarkets and food takeaways compared to wealthier population groups. After the hurricane many shops in New Orleans were closed and inventory ran out quickly in those that were open.

Consequently, even in households where homes were not destroyed and inhabitants not injured and able to shop, there was a lack of food especially for the poorer population groups.

Similar incidents of supermarket shelves becoming  emptied as a consequence of panic-buying occurred in the United States when Americans began stockpiling rice and wheat products  after the media jumped on worries of a global food shortage in 2009.

Federal Government Budgets Pandemic Expenditures

In the early days of the then Kevin Rudd-led Labor government, the Federal government had tacitly accepted the reality of the “very real risk of a pandemic” by its pledge of AUD$160 million in the May 2008 Federal Budget 2008-9, apart from the previous pledge of $133.6 million committed by the Federal Budget in 2004-5 under the then Howard-led Coalition government.

Most of this money was allocated towards the cost of replenishing various anti-viral drugs being made available for medical workers and frontline personnel in the event of a pandemic. The budgets did not, however, countenance any allocation of expenditures or subsidies towards creating extra food reserves or creating logistics rearrangements that might be required in order to avert or alleviate shortages of food or essential groceries.

Difference Between a Flood scenario and a Pandemic scenario

In flood situations such as Brisbane, people were still permitted to get around. The government did not deliberately intervene to confine people’s movements.

Yet, this would not be the case in a pandemic.

There have been best-selling historical novels written of the accounts of people or governments imposing isolation or quarantine barriers in previous eras of human plagues such as the Black Death  or The Plague in England and Europe, or  during cholera plagues in China.

Isolating the infected from the non-infected is, in reality, one of the few ways to stop a pandemic in the absence of any effective vaccine.

During the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic  in Asia, many people in countries such as Singapore or Taiwan stayed (or were mandatorily ordered to stay) in their homes for fear of contagion. In Taiwan over 1500 people were forced to stay quarantined in their home for an extensive period. In Singapore, parts of the economy came to a standstill in areas where quarantine was imposed.

Effect of Quarantine on Food Supply Logistics

Quarantined populations or stay-at-home population behaviour inevitably changes the usual pattern of food purchases. The consequences for the food supply chain are immense.

Government strategies that depend purely on the non-government sector continuing to function effectively in the market place, to ensure the public having equitable access to existing stored goods, are vulnerable to failure if it transpires that the pandemic is for a prolonged period and there is a lack of reserve stockpiles.

Historically, in similar emergency situations such as in war-time, governments have had to intervene to impose temporary regulations on food distribution (such as changing shopping hours or even imposing formal food-rationing) and subsidising the immediate creation of emergency extra food inventories.

In a pandemic, any visit duration by consumers to the store would need to be minimised and configuration of goods within an operating store would need to be re-organised. Alternative delivery arrangements would need to be arranged for quarantined areas.

Various perishable products might have to be sacrificed in longer term in the supermarket context because such products require more handling and energy inputs and, in a pandemic scenario, both labour shortages and power failure risks might be greater.

Also, a major pandemic crisis could require a need to create reserves of “priority foods” quickly. To do this might require a slowing down at the retail-end pending the build-up of extra reserve capacity at the supply end. The community would need to be properly informed to understand this process while the cost to the community of these changes would need to be covered by governments at least for the shorter term, and might even need to be cross-subsidised by higher prices for the “less essential” foods.

Earlier Government Prognosis
In June 2006, the Australian Government released its Business Continuity Guide for Pandemic Planning.

The Guide advised that “the prospect of an influenza pandemic is real” and could have a substantial impact on staffing levels. Experts suggested that business should plan for 30-50 per cent staff absences at the peak of any pandemic.

The Guide also urged businesses to be prepared for 2 or 3 waves of infections, which could last up to 12 weeks each.

During that period, many people would be socially quarantined as the best means of controlling the spread of the disease. As mentioned, this appears to have been the only way in which the SARS outbreak could be contained in Asia in 2002-2003.

Domestic Household food reserves
The length of period predicted as the duration of a pandemic is disconcerting as many Australian households appear to not even maintain a food pantry.

And, while the Pantry List website (www.pantrylist.com.au) recommended Australian households have grocery provisions to last 2 weeks, this is much less than the 10 weeks recommended  for a pandemic by Sydney University expert nutritionists in a research article published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2007.

The problem with inventory management systems of Australian supermarkets
Australian supermarkets provide up to 80% of food (fresh or packaged) sold by retail in many Australian neighbourhoods but hold limited reserves or have little or limited food storage facilities. Most food inventory supply management systems are actually designed for merely short-term methods of inventory control such as pick-and-pack, flow-through, or cross-docking.

One of the main characteristics of the modern supply chain system has been the emphasis on reducing the need for the warehousing of excess supplies and producing “just in time”. Additionally, inventory replenishment systems normally operate through communications technologies, which make it possible not only to monitor stock levels across the supply chain but to trigger replenishment of stock based on point-of-sale data being fed to suppliers by the major supermarket groups.

Where consumer buying patterns change from making smaller purchases regularly to larger purchases less often, many of the current systems of inventory management might not be expected to cope well.

In my view, an efficient supply chain is similar to a tightrope:  It is created by the most nimble of negotiators with neither slack nor a buffer safety net.

The current systems of supply chain management are efficient because they aim to lower the costs of supply in good times. However, in the event of a supply chain scenario such as a pandemic, when there is a major disruption to consumer buying patterns, the existing systems are potentially compromised unless food suppliers and raw material suppliers : (1) are carrying adequate buffer stock or (2) are able to source ready stock quickly or (3) are able to find a suitable way to market.

The just-in-time approach is not the right one for a pandemic. Government intervention is required in the event of a pandemic if suppliers are not well placed to generate supplies.

The logistical problems are compounded by over-dependence on retailer instructions in the form of stock levels data generating new orders. These will either not be forthcoming or will be totally skewed and difficult to fulfil when a pandemic scenario alters buying patterns so substantially.

Existing automated replenishment trigger mechanisms would need to be overridden, and alternative inventory management systems introduced too, at least for the duration of any crisis.

Government intervention could also be critical  for a prolonged crisis when a fair and equitable distribution of essential foods and supplies across the whole community needs to be achieved.