Editor’s Plate: The Coming Storm

June 10, 2020
The pandemic highlighted the best and worst of the food industry — and will bring changes.

Consumers’ relationship with their food system has been complicated in the 200 or so years since the Industrial Revolution. I think it’s about to get a lot more complicated. Blame it in part on the coronavirus.

As I write this, my home state of Illinois and several others are warily reopening to business as it used to be. I really need a haircut, and while I’ve traditionally been miserly about dining out, I’m itching to order off a paper menu and have someone serve it to me.

Except for foodservice, consumers have spent the past three months with an uninterrupted supply of food and drink. Sure, there was some panic buying in the beginning and widely reported shifts in what they were buying – more boxed macaroni & cheese and frozen pizzas, less adventuresome stuff.

Fears that meat and poultry plant shutdowns due to the virus would choke off the supply of pork chops or steaks were never realized. While they haven’t hailed food plant workers with the same reverence as health care workers, I think consumers showed at least some recognition of their dedication ... at least early on.

Then came the news stories, first of meat and poultry plant workers catching the virus, some dying, because of the conditions in those plants: close quarters, chilled, damp rooms, fast-moving conveyors. Employees were at least induced to continue working with financial incentives, and you have to suspect there were varying degrees of management pressure applied to keep the lines moving. The companies’ defense was maintaining the food supply, but whose food supply? A starving nation’s or that of meat and poultry companies?

Then, after some plants had shut down, came pictures of farmers killing hogs and chickens because there weren’t enough plants to process them. And dairy farmers dumping milk because they were too dependent on foodservice accounts.

I’ll never be a vegetarian, and I drink several glasses of cow’s milk every day – love the stuff. But friends and others are talking about how eye-opening those news reports were, and some of them cited animal cruelty, environmental issues or future food needs as further evidence that at least that part of the food system needs to change.

In last month’s issue, we reported the windfalls experienced by staple companies such as Smucker, Kraft Heinz and PepsiCo. Enjoy it while you can, guys. Peanut butter and frozen pizzas will never disappear, but I don’t think they’re the future. I see a big storm coming, made worse by three months of agitated people who have had to sacrifice normalcy. Up till now, I’ve hated and disregarded the phrase “the new normal.” I’m beginning to see the point. I hope you do, too.

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