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COVID-19 Disrupted Food Supply Chain, What Lessons Have Been Learned?

Written by: Victoria Broehm   |   October 7, 2020

Coronavirus, Worker safety

What the food supply chain experienced in March and how it responded to an almost overnight shift in consumer demand from foodservice to home kitchens in light of the coronavirus pandemic was “nothing short of remarkable.” That was the sentiment several of the country’s leading food companies told attendees at The Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum on Monday.

I had the opportunity to listen in to part of the virtual conference on how consumers’ buying habits have changed since COVID-19 cases began popping up earlier this year, what manufacturers are doing to appeal to consumers now and what we can expect to see in the future. Many of the key takeaways I learned also reflect some of the same stories we have heard from our members recently on the measures taken to protect employee health and safety, address supply chain concerns and shifts in consumer demand, and plan for future COVID-19 outbreaks.

Below are a few of the highlights from the conference (note I added hyperlinks to where you can read more about these topics on The WSJ’s website):

  • Employee safety is paramount. Food manufacturing companies realize that their greatest asset is their workforce and have installed procedures, policies and equipment to keep employees safe at work and are regularly communicating with them to keep them healthy off the job. They are also pursuing some automated options to limit personal contact.
  • “Being nimble” is the name of the game. While there are certain actions companies are taking now to minimize risks with the expected rise in COVID-19 cases in the future (e.g., over-hiring staff to allow for absenteeism due to self-quarantines, illnesses or to grant time for regular breaks), there will likely be further, unanticipated bumps in the road that companies cannot prepare for. Staying in close collaboration between the manufacturing and retail sectors will be vital to keep this essential business moving forward.
  • The health crisis is posing an economic crisis. Hunger, poverty, unemployment and the price of food is all going up globally, while incomes are going down. Put together, this means a lot of people can no longer afford decent meals and many are, for the first time, turning to food assistance programs. The U.S. offers one of the safest and most affordable food supplies in the world, but we can still do more to reduce food waste and ensure more people have access to nutritious meals.
  • Restaurants are closing up shop. The restaurant industry is expected to lose roughly $240 billion this year and layoff 8 million people. Many expect sales at grocery stores and retail to continue until there is a vaccine, with people cooking and eating more together at home than out.
  • Price, taste, convenience, health and sustainability still drive consumer preferences. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all five consumer trends, with the biggest shift probably coming from consumers looking for the convenience of home delivery and utilizing e-commerce. Consumers are searching for more choices in the marketplace, particularly focusing on food goods that aim to boost health and wellness and for personalized nutrition. And, on sustainability – they want to buy local (e.g., supporting local restaurants or farms) and from companies with values they believe in (e.g., how they treat workforce). Taste and the desire for “comfort” food is still a priority.
  • Food is medicine. Many consumers are looking for probiotics, protein diversity and “clean” labels, or foods that do not include unknown ingredients. Some expect these trends, particularly in the alternative meats and dairy substitutes, to continue. This could be an opening for new technology to break through – such as gene editing using CRISPR technology.

It was a very interesting forum and I wish I could have sat in for more of the sessions. Feel free to let us know your thoughts – are there any other trends impacting your business?


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