Last Tuesday, the CDC told Americans that the coronavirus is a matter of when and not if.
Last Tuesday, the CDC told Americans that the coronavirus is a matter of when and not if. (Photo: Yichuan Cao/Sipa USA via AP)

Coronavirus Is Causing a Freeze-Dried Food Freak-Out

Backpacking food company Mountain House has taken the unusual step of temporarily shutting down its website in order to deal with skyrocketing demand in the wake of pandemic fears

Last Tuesday, the CDC told Americans that the coronavirus is a matter of when and not if.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

In early January, Oregon Freeze Dry, which owns backpacking food maker Mountain House, noticed online sales starting to pick up. Employees weren’t that surprised; they’d seen sales increase during the SARS outbreak in 2002 and during and after natural disasters, like hurricanes. But then, on January 30, after the World Health Organization declared a global emergency, sales spiked again. And last Tuesday, when the CDC told Americans that the coronavirus is a matter of when and not if, things went nuts. 

From February 19 to February 26, there was a 208.6 percent increase in transactions on the Mountain House website, compared to the week before. Year over year, February transactions are up 1,093 percent. “This is different than things that we’ve seen in the past,” says Bruce Bechtel, director of marketing for Oregon Freeze Dry. Perhaps that’s because Americans don’t know what to expect—and so many are expecting the worst. 

As of Wednesday, Costco, which sells packages from Oregon Freeze Dry packaged to provide a year’s worth of food, removed the entire emergency meal category from its website. On Friday, Mountain House had a note on its website saying that it was not taking new orders. So you may be wondering, if this is the apocalypse, can you at least wait out the end times with the comfort of Mountain House’s freeze-dried mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches?

It turns out, it’s all going to be fine. Or, at least, the freeze-dried ice cream will be back soon.   

Bechtel explained the decision to take the company’s website offline this way: “More than anything, it was because the orders were coming in so fast. We were concerned about having our inventory correct because orders were coming from so many different directions.”

People are clearly panicking, which is not good and probably unnecessary. Experts say that having a couple of weeks’ worth of food on hand is probably fine. And if you’re worried  about having something to eat on the Appalachian Trail this summer, Bechtel says not to. 

“We’re not out of stock, but we have gone into a mode where we’re making sure that we prioritize our long-term customers,” says Bechtel. Oregon Freeze Dry has had standing relationships with Costco, REI, Walmart, Dick’s, and other retailers for, in some cases, decades. Priority number one is ensuring those stores have products on their shelves. He adds that pulling the company’s website down was also, in part, a measure to prevent resale price gouging, which is already happening with face masks. 

Backpackers have been a massive part of Oregon Freeze Dry’s customer base for years, and Bechtel says his company will not let them down. “When the time comes, and the sun comes out, and people want to get outside, we will make sure that we have the product for our partners, whether that’s Amazon or REI,” he says. The good news is that the company always ramps up production for the April-to-July backpacking rush, so it actually had a jump on this. Even better, “We’re in this unique situation coming into this that we had more inventory than we normally would because we’re right in the middle of transitioning our packaging,” he says. Products with the new packaging are starting to hit shelves, but they’ll likely release the remaining inventory with the “classic” packaging shortly. 

If you need to purchase backpacking meals for a trip this weekend, his best suggestion is to call your local Walmart, REI, Dick’s, or other outdoor retail shop. Right now, most have inventory, and he says more food is on the way. There are also some smaller startups doing dehydrated meals, which have inventory, and, you can always dehydrate your own using this handy guide

Finally, anyone who is planning to price-gouge packets of beef stroganoff and pasta primavera is a jerk. And, they should know that nobody is going share their freeze-dried ice cream with them if things get especially grim. 

Lead Photo: Yichuan Cao/Sipa USA via AP