Building on the Coronavirus

June 12, 2020

Will construction plans for future plants have to take "social distancing" into account?

Not to tempt fate, but the food industry should be thinking about what it will be doing differently once the coronavirus pandemic is over.

A lot of industry speculation about the long-term effects of the pandemic has centered on consumer behavior – whether people will continue cooking for themselves more often, that kind of thing. But companies that are in an expansion mode are now faced with immediate decisions with long-term consequences: whether to go ahead with capital projects, and if so, whether and how they should be modified.

Pulling the trigger on a new plant, or extensive renovations to an existing one, is of course one of the hardest and most consequential decisions a food company executive can make. Capital projects commit huge amounts of money to a vision of the company’s future; if that vision turns out to be wrong, it can lead to a catastrophe.

The pandemic has raised the stakes, because it’s made it all the harder for food companies to predict the future. Suddenly planners are faced with the possibility of products falling out of favor – or, conversely, becoming wildly popular – as a result of conditions imposed by sheltering in place.

That’s why McCain Foods is suspending a $300 million expansion of its French fry plant in Othello, Wash. It had been due for completion early next year, but with restaurant business drastically reduced all across the country, demand for French fries plunged.

When projects for new or revamped plants do go ahead, planners will have to decide whether and how to design them to allow employees to work far apart enough to avoid infecting each other. This will probably be one of the toughest decisions they have to make. In most cases, that kind of distancing would add tremendously to a project’s cost. It’s always been the norm in food and beverage plants to use every square foot; putting space between workers, just for safety’s sake, means more square footage, slower throughput, or both.

And the heck of it is, no one at this point knows if it’ll even be necessary. The COVID-19 crisis has hit food plants, especially meat and poultry plants, especially hard precisely because it’s a unique situation that no one foresaw. The question now looms whether it’s a once-in-generations event, or whether, as some experts are predicting, there will be more mutated viruses plaguing mankind in the years to come.

I’ll be interested to raise this question with our good friends in the construction business when this magazine’s annual coverage of industry capital projects comes around next April. Meantime, I’m glad I’m not the one making those decisions.

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