Customer shoppingfor supplies at grocery store during coronavirus pandemic

Meaty Findings: MITRE Network Analysis Addresses Food Supply Chain Security

By Nancy Gast Romps

When nationwide food shortages had far-reaching effects in the COVID-19 era, MITRE looked for answers about where and why shortages occur—earning a seat at the table for recommending national-level solutions.

During the early months of COVID-19, interruptions in the food supply chain had many of us scrambling for access to essentials, let alone favorites. For millions of us, it was the first time we’d experienced such widespread shortages.

With a national crisis materializing right in our own local markets’ empty aisles, it only made sense to dig into the issues. So that’s what MITRE did. 

The result? One of the first-ever fully integrated network representations of U.S. food flows that would be modeled and evaluated for critical nodes, links, and vulnerabilities at the county level. It has become a recipe for informing policymakers and industry as they seek to reinforce the food supply chain in the wake of the pandemic. 

“This study happened for one reason,” says Bradford C. Brown, outcome lead for MITRE’s Supply Chain Special Initiative. “We saw the public need and were willing to invest in making the situation better for people.”

With a national crisis materializing right in our own local markets’ empty aisles, it only made sense to dig into the issues. 

A Shortage of Meat Illustrates Logistic Complexity

The internal MITRE study is a holistic look at the structure, resilience, and vulnerability of U.S. food supply chains, bringing to light the deep and subtle complexities of the nation’s food transport infrastructures.

Central to the research is how transportation hubs nationwide affect the overall food flow. The study also considers effective methods to preserve operations, continuity, and security of food flow during viral outbreaks among food processing workers and associated personnel.

Initiated by Beth Meinert, senior vice president and general manager of MITRE Public Sector, the study built upon original work and datasets by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) researchers in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. UIUC’s richly populated datasets on origin-to-destination food flows across commodity groups proved to be the essential ingredient to getting down to business. 

First up on the list of commodity food chains to study: meat.

“In 2020, many people couldn’t find meat products in their supermarkets,” says Paul R. Garvey, Ph.D., distinguished chief engineer for the Center for Acquisition and Management Sciences. “That was the beginning. And it turned out to be a lot more complex than anyone initially thought.”

That’s because the U.S. supply chain for meat “is a dense and complex network of diverse stakeholders across producers, processors, packagers, distributors, transporters, and consumers,” according to the report. 

Over the course of the study, the team applied a variety of network science procedures to pinpoint the U.S. counties—also known as nodes—with the greatest structural influence on supply chain operations.  Using advanced technology algorithms, MITRE researchers modeled nearly 3,000 nodes defining the meat supply chain and their more than 30,000 origin-to-destination links.

In addition to what eventually would be wide-reaching impact for the government and the food industry, the MITRE report received national attention for the mathematics behind its methods. In October 2022, Garvey was named one of eight Wolfram Innovator Award winners. The honor recognizes exceptional individuals, teams, and companies across fields, disciplines, and the world for their computational excellence applying Wolfram technologies in innovative, exciting ways.

Super-Spreader Events = Supply Chain Disruption

The team found that most nodes have relatively few links to other nodes across the supply chain—that is, an attack, such as illness or unexpected extreme weather (such as the 2021 Texas deep freeze) on one node would not produce a major change in the structural topology of the meat supply chain network.

On the other hand, numerous large and distributed hubs inside the U.S. meat supply chain could be prime attack targets. Hubs are the locations that produce, cold-store, and transport meat products. The top five meat and poultry supply chain hubs are San Bernardino County, Calif.; Riverside County, Calif.; Kankakee County, Ill.; Douglas County, Neb.; and Sussex County, Del. 

With large numbers of personnel working near one another, counties that are hubs in the network easily became super spreaders of COVID-19. The greater the number and size of hubs in a supply chain, the greater the number of attack targets the hubs become—spreading the virus to numerous nodes across the network, often leading to crippling interruptions in the meat and poultry supply and transport operations. 

Supply Chain Recommendations 

Once the study was completed, the next step was getting the word out about its findings—and helping to bring about change. 

Members of the team shared the study’s findings via 79 briefings to public- and private-sector stakeholders and had a conversation with the Secretary of Agriculture. 

One outcome from the briefings was an invitation to MITRE to fill an open seat in the Food and Agriculture Sector’s Government Coordinating Council. Our membership continues today, and so does the work.

And when President Biden issued an executive order in February 2021 focused on agency reviews of U.S. supply chains, MITRE briefed the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation. Both agencies considered MITRE’s findings in the reports they were required to develop under the executive order.

Next Steps: More Commodities, More Impact

A study about hubs has in itself become central to the larger picture about the food supply chain, with its findings leading to fresh opportunities as well as new revelations about the food supply chain and the many factors affecting it. 

“Our vision is being able to provide a complete system-of-systems view of supply chains and the conditions that impact them,” Meinert says. “In times of crisis, we’ll have the resilience to follow well-thought-out plans and take action.”

A dedicated integrated immersion and transportation MITRE lab currently under development will play a major role in current and future studies. In the meantime, says Brown, “We’re layering in climate change so that we can better predict future food flows and related transportation needs, and working with ports to lessen the impact of future shocks and build more resilient supply chains.”

Now with funding from the Department of Homeland Security, MITRE is set to expand the work across all food commodities. Up next: capturing the influence of imports and support efforts to strengthen the resilience and security of the nation’s food supply chain. 

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