Military families in Europe may see shortages of items ranging from baby formula to pet food on their military stores’ shelves due to newly enforced European Union restrictions on food imports to military bases.
Commissary and exchange officials say they are monitoring shipments. There have been no impacts on shelves yet, and the distribution centers in Europe keep a 30- to 45-day supply of these items to support their stores. The issue, which just arose in the past week, is caused by newly enforced restrictions imposed by the European Union, industry sources said.
“This could potentially impact Department of Defense cargo — dry food products — shipped via ocean carriers solely for U.S. service members and their families while they perform national security missions in Europe,” said Defense Commissary Agency spokesman Kevin Robinson, in an email response to Military Times.
“We cannot speculate as to if and when any restrictions could impact our commissaries in Europe,” Robinson said. “However, we will continue monitoring shipments to Europe, and we will work with our military resale partners and industry suppliers to ensure our customers in Europe are supported.”
“If the requirements stand, these products would require export health certificates,” Robinson said.
There are now more than a million cases containing such items as baby formula and baby food, canned meats and meat sauce, and pet food that are immediately affected, said Steve Rossetti, president of the American Logistics Association, an organization representing manufacturers and distributors who sell to commissaries and exchanges. Those million cases of food are in 446 shipping containers at various stages of arrival — either on ships at sea, in the queue to go through customs in Europe, or ready to sail to Europe from Norfolk
This won’t affect meat, dairy, bread products or other items that are procured locally in Europe, he said. The frozen and chilled items carried at their Kaiserslautern Cold Storage and their Central Meat Processing Plant already have health certificates attached, he said.
The new restrictions and enforcement actions by the European Union, which apply to any food products that have ingredients derived from an animal, affect more than 2,000 individual stock items sold in the stores in Europe, Rossetti said.
“The products are being held up because they are not on the European Union’s approved list,” Rossetti said.
Military exchange officials said they have not yet experienced shortages. Navy Exchange Service Command hasn’t experienced port backups in Europe, said Kristine Sturkie, spokeswoman for the Navy Exchange Service Command. “NEXCOM will continue to monitor port conditions and work with [Army and Air Force Exchange Service and Defense Commissary Agency] to mitigate any potential issues if they arise.”
AAFES officials said their exchange operations haven’t been negatively impacted by port backups in Europe. “While future impacts are unknown, the exchange’s logistics, merchandising and operations are closely monitoring the flow of merchandise into Europe and working with officials to mitigate potential challenges,” said AAFES spokesman Chris Ward.
Officials at the Defense Logistics Agency are aware of the situation, and have worked through some issues, but there haven’t yet been any major impacts on the subsistence supply chain that feeds troops at military dining facilities in Europe, said Patrick Mackin, spokesman for DLA. Many of their products are procured from local sources, too.
The problem reared its head in late February when European Union officials held up 17 containers of products going to bases. Rossetti said he got word Feb. 26 that those containers have been released by EU officials, with a letter of warning to the shipper to never again ship containers without health certificates. There are numerous issues with this health certificate process, but there’s also the question of what to do with products now arriving that don’t have the EU-required documentation. It’s not clear whether the containers will be put on hold, put on a ship to go back to the U.S., or destroyed. The commissary agency would bear the cost.
“This is best characterized as an escalating problem. Why now? Nobody knows,” Rossetti said. The restrictions date to 2007 regulations. At that time, there was an unwritten agreement that the restrictions wouldn’t apply to the products coming from the U.S. to U.S. military bases in Europe, Rossetti said.
“Why would a U.S. base be held to European Union standards? These products aren’t for European Union consumption. They are going from the U.S. to U.S. bases,” Rossetti said.
Rossetti said the American Logistics Association is working with various federal government agencies to help resolve the situation before shelves go empty.
“Why are U.S. products, in U.S. possession, destined for U.S. consumers, affected by this?” Rossetti asked. “ALA’s position is that U.S. products destined for U.S. consumers on U.S. bases in Europe must be allowed to flow as they have for the past 27 years,” he said.
There’s up to a six-week transit time for shipping the products, and another couple of weeks to get those products to the commissary agency distribution center, he said.
“Disruptions will be catastrophic for military families who are still coping with concerns about product shortages during the pandemic,” he said.
According to Rossetti, here are the categories of items affected:
• baby formula
• baby food
• canned meats
• dried meats/jerky
• canned fish
• soups with meat
• canned pasta with meat
• meat sauces
• canned milk
• powdered milk
• pet foods
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.