Food Industry 2020 in Retrospective

Much has been written about the challenges to the food supply chain which were brought about by the coronavirus. We’ve also heard about how the grocery industry heroes stepped up to ensure our grocery experience remained safe. Thank goodness for all they did!!!  But for someone who has been involved in the food industry her entire thirty-seven-year professional career, it broke my heart to see an abundance of food being destroyed due to the majority of the foodservice distribution channel being shut down. 

At the same time, we had so many others lining up at food shelters for miles and hours to get a box of food for the week. As much as the U.S. has developed the most efficient food supply chain in the world, it failed during this pandemic crisis. 

I remember a time when there was not an organized food shelf system to distribute food to those in need, which had guaranteed safety standards in place. When a food company changed a label, or package size, the manufacturer was anxious to get the new product on the shelf. 

Retailers were instructed to remove the absolutely good product from the shelf and destroy it by throwing it into their dumpsters. As a sales representative for a food company at the start of my career, I was often tasked with doing this myself.  It seemed so wrong and wasteful knowing there were people who could survive with food which was being thrown away. 

Over time, the food shelf acquisition and distribution systems became very sophisticated, efficient, and safe and much of this food that was once thrown away was reclaimed for distribution to food shelves.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, grocery retail sales increased as consumers were spending more time at home and cooking and baking. Stores experienced out of stocks on many key food items such as milk, yogurt, butter, flour, pork, produce, eggs, and beef. These foods were available in abundance, but just not available in retail packaging. 

The production lines used to package for foodservice, could not easily be converted for retail packaging.  Sadly, this left produce rotting in the fields, animals getting too big for processing facilities, and dairy products losing freshness by the day. On top of that, many processing facilities were impacted by Covid-19 outbreaks, which reduced the available workforce and manufacturing capabilities.

Related Article: Nielsen: Retailers Must Prepare for Change in Shopper Behavior

So, what is the “2020 Hindsight” from everything we have experienced in 2020? I would suggest looking at the following for planning purposes for 2021 and beyond:

  1. Crisis drills and contingency production planning. Agriculture mock crisis drills which I participated in for years, focused on preparing for an event that would negatively impact the consumption of a product. We conducted media training for staff, producers, processors, and anyone involved in the supply chain. We had a social media plan in place to communicate to consumers regarding updated information associated with the crisis. We identified communication “blind spots” which could lead to increased consumer confusion. Each mock drill focused on a different crisis but never was a crisis of this nature which addressed an abundance of a product with no available processing facilities. We have learned the “trickle-down” impact of closing schools and restaurants, and ultimately developed plans to get products and meals to school children and to get product packaged for distribution through the food shelf networks. 
  2. Consumer research. There is a plethora of consumer research available which studied the change in consumer behavior during the pandemic from online shopping habits to at-home meal preparation and eating patterns. I would recommend retailers, manufacturers and processors study this research and how they can capture the magic of the changed consumer behavior to ensure it will continue when we reach the other side of the chaos created by the pandemic.
  3. Innovation and activation. Of course, studying consumer research is just the first step; product innovation and merchandising innovation which aligns with the findings of the research must be the result. There is no shortage of consumer research, but there is a shortage of retailers and manufacturers turning insights into activation.   

If we walk away from the experiences of 2020 without studying the impact and the industry’s reaction and use those experiences to plan for the future, we could find ourselves in this position again, when, not if, we are faced with a similar crisis.