Re­al­ity check on shop­ping for pan­demic

A well-stocked pantry could save your life if a flu pan­demic strikes. Lauren Wil­son and Adam Cress­well re­port

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources -

CRAN­BERRY or ap­ple sauce? Cream or brandy but­ter? This is as close as many of us get to a food dilemma, es­pe­cially as Christ­mas ap­proaches. But if in­fec­tious dis­ease ex­perts are right, we could all be fac­ing a rather more dif­fi­cult food quandary sooner than we’d like.

The world is over­due for an in­fluenza pan­demic, and if one were to strike many peo­ple would be ex­pected to bunker down at home rather than risk in­fec­tion by go­ing in to work or other places where peo­ple con­gre­gate.

It might be sev­eral weeks be­fore the dan­ger passed. But whose larders are al­ready so well stocked that they could last that long?

And who would be able to hit the su­per­mar­ket with a re­al­is­tic idea of what they needed to buy to last a cou­ple of months, and not end up with sup­plies so un­bal­anced that the crack­ers run out weeks be­fore what­ever has been bought to spread on them? Who has a good enough grasp of nu­tri­tion to en­sure one’s house­hold does not be­gin to re­sem­ble some throw­back to scurvy rav­aged sailors?

Jen­nie Brand-Miller, pro­fes­sor of hu­man nu­tri­tion at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, is con­cerned many Aus­tralians do not give enough thought to sup­plies needed to sur­vive a cri­sis such as a global pan­demic.

I think it’s com­pla­cency,’’ Brand-Miller says. I don’t think peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate that some­thing like bird flu would be ter­ri­bly con­ta­gious, and I don’t think enough peo­ple un­der­stand it would mean iso­la­tion.’’

Along with a team of nutri­tion­ists, in­clud­ing Nor­we­gian food ex­pert Anna Haug, BrandMiller has as­sem­bled a food lifeboat’’, which would pro­vide an in­di­vid­ual with the en­ergy and nu­tri­tion re­quire­ments needed to sur­vive three months in lock-down.

We be­came quite ex­cited about the pos­si­bil­ity that we could come up with a food lifeboat, be­cause the best way to avoid some­thing like avian flu is to go into iso­la­tion — so to con­tin­u­ously go out to buy foods would ex­pose one to risks,’’ Brand-Miller said.

The food lifeboat was mea­sured against four prin­ci­pal cri­te­ria: it must be suf­fi­ciently af­ford­able, not too un­palat­able, cover all one’s nu­tri­tional needs and be eas­ily stored — none of the prod­ucts needs re­frig­er­a­tion, and all have a gen­eral shelf-life of around 12 months.

It was im­por­tant for us to be able to store the items at room tem­per­a­ture, in case the peo­ple who op­er­ate gas or elec­tric­ity ser­vices have to stay at home rather than risk ex­pos­ing them­selves to the virus,’’ Brand-Miller says.

Cook­ing could also be a chal­lenge if gas and elec­tric­ity sup­plies tem­po­rar­ily shut down, so many of the prod­ucts on the sug­gested list re­quire lit­tle prepa­ra­tion. And while a global flu pan­demic is one emer­gency that could see us all home-bound, other sce­nar­ios, in­clud­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, could re­quire suf­fi­cient stock­piles of long-life food.

The re­search, pub­lished last week­end in the Med­i­calJour­nalofAus­tralia (2007;187:674-6), also raises con­cerns about the con­cen­tra­tion of Aus­tralia’s food sup­plies, with su­per­mar­ket out­lets be­ing dom­i­nated by two main chains.

This sit­u­a­tion po­ten­tially ren­ders Aus­tralia more sen­si­tive to lo­gis­ti­cal hitches if a cri­sis were to arise, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Aus­tralia’s food sup­plies are nar­rowly fo­cused in terms of pro­vi­sion and at any one point in time, the ma­jor su­per­mar­ket chains hold only a few weeks’ sup­plies,’’ the au­thors wrote. If the cen­tral sup­ply chain broke down in an emer­gency, su­per­mar­ket stocks would be­come de­pleted within two or three weeks. This could hap­pen much faster if peo­ple were to panic-buy and be­gin to hoard food.

As a so­lu­tion to this po­ten­tial dis­as­ter, the panel of nutri­tion­ists are hop­ing their food lifeboat will be­come some­thing that can be pur­chased at a su­per­mar­ket, al­ready shrinkwrapped for con­ve­nient stor­age.

But it may be a while be­fore we start to see the pack­age on su­per­mar­ket shelves.

Brand-Miller says food sup­pli­ers have been hes­i­tant to em­brace the project. I said to Wool­worths Would you like to of­fer this as a pack­age?’, but they are not go­ing to bring it in at this point in time.’’

Hav­ing a ready-made food lifeboat avail­able for sale at one’s lo­cal su­per­mar­ket would take the guess-work out of try­ing to put to­gether a three-month sur­vival pack that cov­ers a per­son’s nu­tri­tional re­quire­ments.

Brand-Miller says most peo­ple are in the dark about the foods they would need to sur­vive. In­gre­di­ents such as sea­weed, for ex­am­ple, would not im­me­di­ately come to mind for most of us, but Brand-Miller says it was a very im­por­tant item on her list.

The sea­weed is there to pro­vide the io­dine, and io­dine de­fi­ciency is cer­tainly a se­ri­ous is­sue. Hy­po­thet­i­cally, if a wo­man be­came preg­nant through­out this pe­riod and did not get enough io­dine, the baby could be at risk of learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties in ex­treme cases.’’

Vegemite is in­cluded as an im­por­tant source of folic acid; Milo is on the list for its range of nu­tri­ents, while Spam and canned tuna are listed as sources of pro­tein.

And while the food lifeboat is full of nu­tri­tion­ally rich items, the re­searchers are aware that be­ing locked in­doors for weeks on end with­out the oc­ca­sional in­dul­gence is tor­ture for most peo­ple.

We’ve in­cluded choco­late on the list be­cause palata­bil­ity is very im­por­tant, and in sit­u­a­tions like the ones we are pre­par­ing for, food be­comes a wel­come dis­trac­tion,’’ BrandMiller says. (Cho­co­holics note: she’s only al­lo­cated you 30g per day.)

The en­tire food list, which is ex­pected to last one per­son 10 weeks, is es­ti­mated to cost be­tween $450-$500. It pro­vides an av­er­age en­ergy in­take of 9 MJ per per­son per day, so while men may need a lit­tle more en­ergy, women and chil­dren would re­quire less.

If the food lifeboat be­comes adopted within the food in­dus­try, Brand-Miller says the panel of ex­perts would also look at putting to­gether a se­ries of food lifeboats suited to dif­fer­ent cul­tural tastes.

So far the nutri­tion­ists are sim­ply of­fer­ing two pack­ages as op­tions for those in­ter­ested in stock­pil­ing for emer­gen­cies — one with, and one with­out vi­ta­min sup­ple­ments.

While the food lifeboat con­tain­ing vi­ta­min sup­ple­ments is more costly, it is rec­om­mended as the bet­ter al­ter­na­tive by the re­searchers.

If you are talk­ing about nor­mal life, I would al­ways say it is prefer­able to get all of your vi­ta­min needs from food, but in sit­u­a­tions like this tak­ing vi­ta­mins is a prefer­able al­ter­na­tive,’’ says Brand-Miller.

Ei­ther way, Brand-Miller says it is im­por­tant just to be pre­pared and be­gin to think about how well your cup­boards would fare in a global flu pan­demic.

Pic­ture: Alan Pryke

Knower’s ark: Pro­fes­sor Jen­nie Brand-Miller with one per­son’s food lifeboat

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