COVID-19 and Its Effects on the Prepared Meals Industry

Grocery Frozen Food

COVID-19 has made an impact on virtually every sector of the American economy – the prepared meals industry is no exception. Each day new stories emerge regarding the temporary or permanent closures of plants across the nation. As of May 14th, at least 213 meatpacking and processed food plants have confirmed cases of the coronavirus – of those, seven are closed as they reassess the situation.

While the situation remains dire for the workers in these plants, operators must make difficult decisions on how to run these facilities. The very nature of these facilities, with workers working in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time – makes these locations hotbeds for the virus. Several locations have been hot spots for the virus, resulting in what are termed “super-spreader events”.

However, in spite of these setbacks, some sectors have been seeing surprising boosts in their profits. In particular, manufacturers who process foods to be made at home have seen a dramatic uptick in sales. Nestlé reported its best quarterly sales in five years. This sea change signifies a change in how people are purchasing and consuming food – with people are no longer able to eat out at restaurants, the demand for simple cooking solutions is at a high.

This leaves those in the industry in a puzzling position, where workers in these factories are put at risk amid growing profits. How are processed food plants dealing with this situation, and what can we learn to protect workers while retaining productivity and profitability?

What We Know, How We’re Reacting

Shutdowns caused by the coronavirus have essentially shuttered all non-essential businesses in the United States. This has wreaked havoc for the food supply chain. Demand for poultry and livestock has plummeted as the market has shifted. Without kids in schools, for instance, the consumption of milk is at a severe low, and farmers have found themselves dumping out milk with nowhere to send it.

Factories themselves have also had to adapt, often to their detriment. Facilities that are made to move workers six feet apart now have to struggle with reduced productivity that comes from taking people away from the assembly line. Conveyor belts were designed to have people stand next to each other and work – a fact that is difficult to change. The CDC has recommended building Plexiglas partitions to protect workers from each other, along with elaborate screening measures for all workers.

Needless to say, the very structure of food assembly is changing. Processed food plants are implementing strategies to prioritize essential positions and cross-training employees to ensure things continue to run as normal. Safety measures are being implemented across the industry, but these measures can often come at the cost of productivity.

Can Automation Save Lives?

 Automation in the prepared meals industry had already been seen as the direction many plants were taking. With the onset of COVID-19, food production tools offer a solution that promotes social distancing practices along with increased efficiency and overall safety.

In the world of the food industry, hiring talent to stay has been an issue since the mid-seventies. Turnover costs have increased exponentially since then, and the labor market is becoming increasingly unstable. Utilizing machines to perform these tasks comes with several major benefits. Without having to worry about the human factor, employees getting sick is factored out of the equation, and total shutdowns of a plant become less of a threat.

These machines can often perform the role of several workers, with radically increased production and efficiency. There is no potential for burnout, and machines produce things at a constant and reliable rate. Machines improve food safety and workers’ safety, and can be customized or tailored to an industry’s specific needs.

Attention Shifts in the COVID Era

As the novel coronavirus progresses throughout the United States, media attention is shifting from assisted living spaces to food processing plants. This is inevitable with the progression of any virus – populated areas tend to get hit first, and hard, and gradually moves out to suburban and rural areas later on. Plants are located in both areas, and rural infections tend to be centered around these facilities.

Anyone with a smart device can tell you that a brand’s reputation is more fragile than ever. Particularly in this climate, making the wrong decisions can have dramatic consequences, and the time has never been worse for an event like that to occur. With everyone stuck inside, the population has retreated into internet spaces to air their aggrievances. Photo or video evidence of bad industry practices can be particularly incriminating, even when taken out of context.

This is part of the juggling act of our “new normal” – making the decision between employee health and turning a profit. Such decisions must be weighed carefully.

What Companies Are Doing

Measures to protect employees are being taken around the globe to continue the production of food supplies. Here are some of the more common measures that are currently being implemented:

  • Taking temperatures of employees before beginning their shifts
  • Increasing cleaning and sanitation practices and training
  • Investing in automated machine tools to decrease employee proximity
  • Building measures to protect employees when social distancing is not an option
  • Having employees disclose if their family members are sick
  • Following CDC recommendations to promote social distancing measures

Concluding Remarks

On April 28th, President Trump made the unprecedented decision forbidding states to close food manufacturing plants under the Defense Production Act. This decision puts the control in the hands of companies as to whether they keep their doors open or shut. While this protects these companies from liability if employees contract the virus, it does not protect them from the public ire, or the consequences that contracting COVID-19 has on its work force.

All businesses are currently slowing down their production. What evidence suggests is that those that don’t are the ones that are closing down. A small margin of losses now can mean not losing out on profits later on.

The time to make decisive and rational decisions about the future of food processing plants is now. For the prepared meals industry, whose profits are generally surging, making good investments in machining tools can be one of them.