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Lessons of the Coronavirus

June 2, 2020
In his monthly column, Pan Demetrakakes talks about what we (hopefully) have learned so far.

As I write this, I don’t know what the coronavirus situation will be like when you read it; things are moving too fast. But what we’ve seen to date is enough in my opinion to draw some conclusions as to how it’s affected food and beverage processing so far – and how the industry should cope.

Just-in-time is just not enough. Keeping inventories low is a winning strategy in normal times, but it fails fast in emergencies. The tighter the supply margins, the faster they get overwhelmed when there’s an interruption anywhere in the supply chain. This was especially evident with meat and poultry, which got hit hardest by the coronavirus situation: a relative handful of plants account for a majority of beef and pork production. The situation more or less corrected itself once consumers stopped hoarding, but if there’s a second wave – or, heaven forbid, some worse kind of emergency occurs that keeps plants from operating at all – there’s so little capacity in the system that shortages will hit immediately.

Related to that problem is:

  • Supply chains are too rigid. An unprecedented aspect of this pandemic was the stark contrast between how it devastated foodservice consumption while pumping up retail. Since just over half of all food dollars were going to foodservice, this presented the industry with a profound challenge. Unfortunately, it wasn’t well met. Probably the worst situation was in dairy, where farmers were forced to pour milk into manure pits while dairy coolers in grocery stores were going empty. The problem was that the loss of schools and other institutional accounts led to a tremendous disruption, because processors couldn’t switch fast enough between channels.
  • Remote MRO is more important than ever. One of the most promising industrial automation trends is cloud-based maintenance done through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). During a pandemic, when food plants are trying to limit visits by outsiders as much as possible, its potential importance increases. Technicians at the equipment manufacturer’s headquarters, or elsewhere, can use the IIoT to diagnose problems and even, in the case of things like code for controllers, fix them.
  • Government regulators need to get their act together. One of the more exasperating, and potentially tragic, aspects of the pandemic has been the cumbersome bureaucracy involved in getting approval for vital needs like coronavirus test kits. This has minor but still frustrating parallels in food & beverage processing. For instance, a sanitation manager who wants to know if a given cleaning chemical is effective against SARS-CoV-2 (the formal name of the novel coronavirus) has to enter the EPA number on the label into the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It would be easier if the label just said so, but that would run afoul of FDA regulations.

But when we talk about regulations, let’s also consider, with gratitude, some people whose heroics have been overlooked: the USDA inspectors who keep our supply of meat and poultry safe. More 100 employees of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service have contracted COVID-19; many of them had to work without masks or had been told to find their own.

That makes a good segue to what is arguably the most important lesson of all:

  • People need protecting. “People are our most important asset” has become a business cliché, often regarded cynically. But the coronacrisis has forced food processors to put their money where their mouths are – sometimes literally. Many processors have been awarding their workers bonus pay, as lump sums or by the hour, for braving the situation.

But that’s not going to last, and it wasn’t ever really adequate compensation for what the industry’s workers have had to go through. To keep the country fed, they’ve had to risk their lives – and, in more than 20 cases, lose them.

As I said to begin this column, I don’t know as I write how the situation will play out. But the industry has to make two momentous decisions: how soon to call employees back to work, and how to protect them once they’re there. The biggest problem is that, when it comes to microbiological safety, the industry is overwhelmingly set up to protect food, not workers. But they’re going to have to figure out ways to change that; the most important will be allowing greater distancing between workers.

The COVID pandemic was unprecedented. But that doesn’t mean it will never be repeated, and the industry must be prepared for next time.

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