Don't Wait for Disaster

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Food Industry Preps
After the epidemiologist who advises Alex Lee on food safety issues told executives last year about the pandemic threat, the company didn't waste any time. Information systems VP Schwarz pulled together a task force of 16 people from all parts of the business to brainstorm how the industry would be affected by a pandemic, and how the company would respond. The group came up with more than 120 ideas, which are summarized in a document that Alex Lee has made publicly available.

"We're in the food business, and we serve a lot of communities in the Carolinas. People have to eat--we have to keep this food supply going. We made a decision that this [planning] isn't going to be a competitive thing," Schwarz says. "We wanted to get the industry to wake up to this risk."

The group's report takes into account various scenarios such as consumers avoiding restaurants, and increased demand for online shopping and home delivery, and lists recommendations for dealing with those situations.

Coming up with the ideas was fairly easy, but putting them into action is difficult, and Alex Lee has a long way to go in its preparations, he says. The company has spent a lot of time analyzing its employee base, thinking through situations such as filling in a shortage of truck drivers with employees who aren't drivers but have the credentials.

Another focus is employee best practices in a pandemic: using phone and email instead of face-to-face meetings whenever possible. But having employees work remotely is fraught with problems, including security, ample VPN bandwidth and a reliance on the Internet running properly, Schwarz says. "If your job requires paperwork, how's all that going to flow?"

A big part of what his company does is distribute food to grocery stores, a job that obviously can't be done remotely. "We get pallets in from manufacturers and get them to grocery stores. You can't do that from home," he says.

Making sure its vendors also are preparing for a pandemic is another big focus for Alex Lee, and company executives have met with vendors to discuss how to maintain the supply chain in the event of an outbreak.

Schwarz advises other organizations embarking on pandemic planning to get upper management on board: "It's impossible to address this issue without top management support. You need resources in terms of people and money if you're going to do it seriously."

Preparing for such a catastrophe raises a lot of tough issues, but companies are better off thinking through them now, he adds.

"Even though it's difficult, it's got to be easier than waiting for the pandemic and having chaos," Schwarz says. "Pandemic planning is not optional."


This was first published in December 2006

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