LSU Engineering Alumnus Discusses Supply Chain During COVID-19

May 20, 2020

Plane flying over distribution centerBATON ROUGE, LA – The COVID-19 pandemic is having a ripple effect throughout the United States, leaving people in fear of not only contracting the coronavirus, but also running out of food. The recent images of farmers throwing away edible crops and fresh milk is baffling to some, but LSU Engineering alumnus Hitendra Chaturvedi explains why this is happening and offers insight into what the future holds for the country’s food supply chain.

Chaturvedi, who received his master’s degree in system sciences from the LSU Computer Science department (it's now known as the Division of Computer Science and Engineering), has had a 30-year career in progressive technology, making him an expert on global supply chain strategy, sustainability in the supply chain, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. He has worked for Ernst & Young, A.T. Kearney and Microsoft, among others, and built a $100-million software company in India called GreenDust, where he implemented proprietary reverse logistics software at Amazon, Samsung, and Flipkart/Walmart.

When not teaching in the Supply Chain Department of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe, Chaturvedi is called upon for his advice by various media outlets, including CNBC and The Washington Post.

“The first thing we need to understand is that there are two supply chains,” Chaturvedi said. “The consumer chain feeds the grocery stores while the business chain feeds the restaurants and schools. The business supply chain has already been disrupted and it’s not easy to pivot to the consumer supply chain overnight, as they are very different. That is why you are seeing some produce being destroyed while grocery store shelves are empty.”

The other important fact Chaturvedi points out is that most of these plants and farms are labor-intensive and mostly staffed by low-paid immigrants who do not have the proper protection and are at high risk of getting infected.

“If plants and farms do not have people to manage their livestock, tend to crops, or man the processing plants, the companies will have no option but to destroy the perishable products,” he said.

With more and more U.S. meat factory workers contracting COVID-19, the possibility of the country going without meat for a while is imminent, as proven by a full-page ad published by Tyson Foods executives stating the “food supply chain is breaking.” Chaturvedi agrees the U.S. could “absolutely” be without meat if there are no workers to harvest the animals. 

“We need to have the same strict protection for people who are manning our food supply chain as we do for consumers,” he said.

Chaturvedi also emphasizes the importance of keeping truck drivers healthy, since they are keeping the food supply going.

“Hats off to them for keeping the country fed right now,” he said. “The amount of trucks on the roads is way up. They are working hard. My heart goes out to them, and they should have PPE. I would give them a nice bonus when this is all over.”

Though meat may run out, despite President Donald Trump’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open, Chaturvedi believes that unless workers are safe, DPA may not mean much.

“The issue is not supply of food,” he said. “We have ample supply. We have so much surplus that we export over 50% of our produce, which is more than $140 billion. Moreover, what will happen to this supply when countries we export to fall in recession and they do not buy? All the food will stay here and prices will drop.”

As for the toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic, Chaturvedi says it’s the bullwhip effect—when changes in consumer demand cause companies in a supply chain to order more goods to meet the new “demand”—but this demand does not translate to consumption.

“The toilet paper supply chain is also like the food supply chain,” Chaturvedi said. “There are two customers—retail customers who buy the fluffy, nice multi-ply toilet paper and the business customers like offices and restaurants that buy a little low-quality stuff. As we stayed home from work, the toilet use that was supposed to happen at work started happening at home. So yes, use increased and so did the demand of the ‘fluffy’ kind. Demand shifted from business to home and the toilet paper supply chain had to adjust, and so we saw the shortages on grocery shelves as there was not enough ‘fluffy’ toilet paper available.”

Chaturvedi says that now is the time to prepare for the next outbreak if there is one. He believes there will be a break in the amount of COVID-19 cases in coming months but will pick up again when the weather turns cooler.

“I do believe we’ll see a lull this summer, which will offer a false sense of security,” Chaturvedi said. “Now, we have enough warning for the fall. If we prepare well and come out of the winter, which will be flu season, then I will believe we have conquered COVID-19.”


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Contact: Libby Haydel

Communications Specialist