Tuesday, December 18, 2007

10 Weeks Of Stockpiled Food Needed To Deal With "Inevitable" Bird Flu Pandemic

When The Supermarket Shelves Grow Bare, Where Will You Get Your Food?

By Darryl Mason

The massive floods in northern New South Wales and Queensland have led to hundreds of people being isolated in their homes, with only neighbours in boats and the occasional SES volunteers turning up with food and emergency supplies. Some farmers expect to be cut off by floodwaters for two or more weeks. Hundreds of roads and bridges have been washed away. The damage bill is expected to top more than $100 million.

While some of those affected by rapidly rising floodwaters are used to dealing with floods every few years, for most it was the worst flooding they'd seen in decades, and there was no advance warnings. Not everyone was prepared - that is, with food stockpiles and a few boxes of emergency essentials.

Some of the experts who have been planning for a bird flu pandemic in Australia use flood disaster models to explain what life will be like for millions of Australians when the "inevitable" bird flu pandemic begins.

Like those now trapped and cut off from the world by floodwaters, a full blown bird flu pandemic would see entire towns, huge stretches of suburbia, and cities, literally cut off.

Trucks delivering food to supermarkets and 7-11s will grow more infrequent as voluntary and mandatory quarantines kick in, electricity and water supplies will likely be effected and may cut off altogether as those responsible for maintaining infrastructure fall ill, stay home to care for sick relatives or simply refuse to turn up for work in fear of catching what would be an extremely lively and deadly virus.

I clearly remember laughing at the thought of stockpiling food and water when YK2 threatened to end civilisation as we know it. But last year, a few days worth of truck deliveries failed to turn up at the local supermarket (a smallish one) for a variety of reasons (illness, maintenance problems, industrial disputes) and it was chilling to see how quickly the shelves and fridges emptied, or thinned out.

Not just bread and milk, but things like jars of peanut butter, nappies, toilet paper, fruit juice. In less than six days with no deliveries, an old shelf stacker said, most of the stuff they sold would be gone and they'd shut up shop. And then what?

If the bird flu pandemic became real, if hundreds of thousands of Australians fell gravely ill, all at once, if there were quarantines, many Australians would find themselves in a similar position to those in northern NSW and QLD cut off by floodwaters.

Stockpiling food, water, batteries, and yes, toilet paper, doesn't seem like such a crazy idea anymore. In fact, we are likely to see a government sponsored, or at least government 'inspired' marketing push in the coming months to make the stockpiling of food and essentials something every Australian family should begin to do. You know, just in case.

From the Courier Mail :

Every Australian household should stockpile at least 10 weeks' worth of food rations to prepare for a deadly flu pandemic, a panel of leading nutritionists has warned.

World health experts now agree a pandemic is inevitable and will spread rapidly, wiping out up to 7.4 million people globally and triggering rapid food shortages.

....Woolworths and Coles, the nation's two major supermarket chains, will run out of stock within two to four weeks without a supply chain – or even faster if shoppers panic.

This has prompted a team of leading nutritionists and dietitians from the University of Sydney to compile "food lifeboat" guidelines to cover people's nutritional needs for at least 10 weeks.

Their advice – published in the Medical Journal of Australia – would allow citizens to stay inside their homes and avoid contact with infected people until a vaccine becomes available.

The lifeboat includes affordable long-life staples such as rice, biscuits, milk powder, Vegemite, canned tuna, chocolate, lentils, Milo and Weet-Bix.

Jennie Brand-Miller, professor of human nutrition at the University of Sydney and co-leader of the study, believes it is common sense to stockpile food before a pandemic strikes.

"It's really not a question of if: it's a question of when," she said.

"It will spread very rapidly just like flu does normally because it's a highly contagious organism, except this will be a really lethal one. What we suffer from is a false sense of security that someone else is looking after all this."

The short version is, as was made clear by BushCo. in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, don't rely on the government to come to your rescue when a pandemic, or another major disaster, hits. You're pretty well on your own.

And the better that you can take care of yourself and your family, and feed yourselves, the more likely you are to get through two months of quarantine without having to go and queue for hours in a local carpark with thousands of others, waiting for food and water.

What the story doesn't tell us is that most bird flu experts believe that if there is a pandemic, it is likely to come in 'waves', two or three, over a year or more, with each 'wave' lasting eight or ten weeks.

Life might get back to normal between each 'wave', which would mean you'd probably have to go out and build up the stockpile again.

More on all this from the Medical Journal of Australia :
  • Influenza pandemics are a real risk and are best managed by self-isolation and social distancing to reduce the risk of infection and spread.

  • Such isolation depends on availability of food of adequate quantity and quality.

  • Australia has one of the most concentrated food supplies of any country, making rapid food depletion more likely in a crisis.

  • Food stockpiling by both authorities and citizens is an important safety precaution that should be given greater media coverage.

In the event of a lethal pandemic, emergency measures such as closing schools, staying home with family and friends, and avoiding contact with other people (until all have been immunised) will be instrumental in avoiding infection.

The Australian Government and the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) have been planning for such a scenario for several years and have advanced plans in place

Australia has one of the most concentrated food supplies of any country, being dominated by two large supermarket chains. These organisations operate with such efficiency that their logistic chains hold only a few weeks’ supplies.

If the supply chain shuts down, or if there is no delivery from central stores, supermarkets’ stocks will be depleted within 2–4 weeks. If domestic stockpiling begins at this late stage, then depletion will be accelerated.

Food supplies in the home will need to last as long as it takes for vaccine development and production. For ordinary seasonal influenza vaccines, there is a lag of 6 months or more after a new virus strain has first been discovered until a new vaccine is available for distribution. For weather-related catastrophes, food stockpiles might be required for much longer.

A destabilised global climate, where small changes in atmospheric and ocean circulations have major consequences for temperature, rainfall, wind and storm patterns, may precipitate food stockpile dependence for several years.

While long-term food stockpiling could be considered a governmental responsibility, we suggest that home stockpiling of food to last about 3 months might be done by individual households. This would allow a window of time for governments to put emergency action plans and food deliveries in place.

The MJA has a detailed list of what foods, and in what quantities, they recommend you stockpile for emergencies here.

The idea isn't that you rush out and rack up $500 on your credit car tomorrow filling the spare room, or the space under the stairs, with 40 jars of Vegemite and 20 kilos of powdered milk.

The way I've been building my stockpile is to simply toss in a few extra cans of soup or baked beans or an extra jar of peanut butter, each time I do a shop. Considering the variety of canned and dried and 'ready-to-eat' meals that crowd our supermarket shelves, you can actually put together a pretty damn tasty stockpile, most of which will last months, or years, beyond the 'use-by-date'.

You can also expect to see lots of stories in the coming months about the benefits of planting herbs, vegetables and fruit trees around the family home, or on the balcony if you're an apartment dweller. Very little of the vegetables and fruit that you see for sale in supermarkets in Sydney, for example, are actually grown locally. In a pandemic scenario, the fresh fruit and vegetables will, obviously, run out much quicker than just about everything else on the supermarket shelves.

Short of wheat and corn, you can grow a wide variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables in even the smallest suburban backyard, and on apartment balconies, if you plan your garden efficiently.

You can get by on canned carrots for months, if you were forced to, but ripping a handful of fresh carrots from an old metal tub on the balcony is going to feel extra special if you can't go up the road and buy them.

Opening a cupboard and seeing three months worth of stockpiled food and water is still pretty weird. But it's also remarkably reassuring, and satisfying. Just remember to buy a couple of spare can openers.

Regardless of whether or not a pandemic hits, you're going to save money in the next year or two on what you buy and stockpile, or plant, now. Food from the supermarket is only going to grow more expensive in 2008 and 2009. If widespread food shortages hit, a three month food stockpile is going to seem like a very worthy investment, indeed.