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U.S. food retailers could expect to see little disruption to their operations from a speedy, decisive war with Iraq, industry leaders told SN last week.
President Bush's warning as the conflict began that the war could last longer than many have predicted, however, might have dimmed the prospects that the long-anticipated military action would end quickly.
A longer battle could promote increased anxiety among consumers and curb spending, but it also could trigger sales increases for supermarkets as people spend more time at home and buy emergency provisions.
"If it turns out that there is a less successful war than we have heard the administration was expecting, then I think you will start to see people really stocking up and trying to take more precautions," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer, Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
The stock markets seemed to react to Bush's warning, sending retailers' and others' shares down on Thursday as the conflict got under way.
The "Code Orange" terror alert, implemented two days before the attack began, was not seen as driving an immediate spike in sales of emergency supplies as it did during the preceding alert, when consumers were told to assemble survival caches.
"I would expect there will be less of a response this time because we just came off a Code Orange alert a short time ago," Hammonds said.
Hammonds said that when the threat level is elevated to Code Orange, FMI members are informed to take heightened security measures, especially when it comes to food-processing facilities.
Retailers should not expect any disruptions in the procurement of products because of the increased security procedures, however.
"We don't foresee any delays unless there is an event... something that would change the situation we've been living with for a year and a half," said Gene Grabowski, vice president, communications and marketing, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington. "Since 9-11, our member companies have hired extra security, added lights and cameras at facilities and parking lots, locked up parking lots, locked up the trucks+ in truth the industry is acting as though we've been threatened ever since 9-11."
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the GMA assembled the best security practices of its member companies and distributed them through an effort called "Project Vigilance."
Grabowski pointed out that no "specific, identifiable threats" have been made against the food industry. And Hammonds noted that the food supply seems an unlikely target given the nature of other recent terror attacks involving explosives and high-profile targets.
"My guess is, on the terrorism front, if you were going to do something to the food supply, that's not a quick way to reach a lot of people."
Port operators also said they expected no impediments to the importing of products from overseas, despite enhanced security.
Theresa Adams Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Port of Los Angeles, said there has been no increase in food inspections since the orange alert. She said the Port uses its own rating system on a scale of one to three, with three being the highest alert. The Port moved to level-two status Wednesday.
A level-two rating means the Coast Guard increases the number of patrols, but it doesn't affect food coming in, Adams Lopez said. If food safety does become a concern, she said the Port "will do all we can" to avoid holding up any foods.
The commercial port in Nogales, Ariz., the largest one in operation between the U.S. and Mexico, was scheduled to remain open under normal operating hours during the war.
"We have been in contact with U.S. Customs, and they have told us they will keep the port open and the lines moving, barring any extraordinary circumstances," said Allison Moore, spokeswoman, Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales. "They've indicated they will change the procedure a bit, but it will not slow the flow of traffic through the port."
Retailers remained cautious last week as events unfolded.
"I think it's too soon to call," said William Grize, CEO, Ahold U.S. Retail. "We've seen nothing discernable now [in terms of consumer behavior]."
He said retailers have plans to deal with the various emergencies that could arise.
"You have to think about food safety, maintenance, logistics [and] community relations," he said. "That is something each company has procedures for that get dusted off regularly when there are these crises. We have plans and procedures in place that just get activated."