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