Monday, February 19, 2007

Americans Told To Stock Up On Food, Essential Items As Fear Of Full Blown Bird Flu Pandemic Grows

The US government has begun running public service announcements on TV and radio to raise awareness of the fact they are anticipating a full blown flu pandemic in coming years.

The government's website has expanded its resources recently, and now includes a Threat Level warning system, similar in style to that used for terrorism alerts.

Today it sits at Phase 3 - "No or very limited human to human transmission".

The US government is expecting at least one-third of the entire workforce to be off work during the course of a bird flu, or H5N1, pandemic. The grocery industry is officially listed by the US government as one of 13 "critical infrastructure" industries, meaning society can barely exist without it.

But it is a key industry expected to suffer greatly during a pandemic.

From the Houston Chronicle :
....will fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, bread, milk and other household staples still be available if the U.S. is hit with an anticipated bird flu pandemic? If state and federal officials urge people to stay away from public places, like restaurants and fast-food establishments, will they be able to get the groceries they need to prepare food in their homes?

Unlike other critical infrastructure sectors like water, energy and health care, the food industry isn't getting much help from state and federal governments when it comes to disaster planning. That puts the burden on individual supermarket chains and wholesalers to deal with a potentially large number of sick workers that could affect store operations and disrupt the food supply.

...if a pandemic emerges, the Department of Homeland Security projects worker absenteeism to reach 40 percent or more over a prolonged period. Hammonds said retail food stores would have to contend with worker shortages and disruptions in the supply chain.

"Having those critical facilities open — like power, water, food — becomes very important" during a national disaster such as a pandemic, said Keith Hanson, an outreach coordinator for Nebraska's Center for Biopreparedness Education.

One of the key problems cited by the Department of Homeland Security is that Americans are dining out substantially more now than they were a decade ago, which means average Americans have smaller supplies of non-perishable foods in their homes.

The Food Marketing Institute's Hammonds said a widespread pandemic will likely cause food consumption to shift away from restaurants and fast-food establishments and toward in-home eating, causing a greater demand for groceries.

"That means stores would need to be prepared for an increase in volume," he said.

There will be a greater demand for grocery items during a pandemic, but less staff to deal with the increase in customers, and also very likely less groceries on the shelves, as the trucking of food supplies to non-city stores is expected to be greatly reduced.

The US government is now advising Americans to stock up on non-perishable food supplies, enough to last family members a few weeks.

Here's an officially mandated list of key supplies from the US government's own website :

— canned goods, including meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, beans and soup
— fruit bars or dried fruit
— cereal or granola
— peanut butter or nuts
— crackers
— canned juices
— bottled water
— vitamins
— soap
— toilet paper
— flashlight
— portable radio
— batteries
— manual can opener

A small solar powered battery recharger should be added to that list, seeing as they are becoming ubiquitous in camping stores.

Keeping what I call a 'pandemic box' of supplies isn't a bad idea, regardless of the threat of a flu pandemic. You might never need to tuck into the supplies, but you're going to miss them all if you suddenly find yourself in a situation where the local shops are inaccessible, locked down, or no longer exist.

As anyone who has endured the aftermath of major storms, hurricanes, cyclones, intense flooding, or even bushfires, can tell you, being able to survive without having to hit the local shops to get the basics for a few days, or a few weeks, can make all the difference in the world.

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