There are few issues more “in the news” than the coronavirus pandemic. And while SARS-CoV-2 has been shown not to be a direct threat to, or transmitted by, food (see our eDigest article here), this does not mean that the current crisis has not had an impact on food processors and those of us in the food safety business, whether from the disease or from the mitigation efforts.

We here at Food Safety Magazine wanted to find out exactly how the coronavirus outbreak and mitigation efforts are affecting food processors. We asked a series of questions in a survey conducted on March 18, and we received responses from more than 330 food processors and service companies from around the world.

We first asked, “Has the coronavirus and/or mitigation efforts impacted your company?” As seen in Figure 1, 89 percent of respondents said that the crisis has had an impact on their business, with more than one-half saying it has had a “dramatic” impact.

One of the not very surprising impacts that people report is the implementation of travel bans. More than 75 percent of respondents reported that their company currently has some level of travel ban in effect. A number of people commented that the travel ban that they are following has a few limitations and exceptions, including allowances for deliveries, local travel, and certain essential travel. Others reported that they also are stopping or severely limiting visits to their plant as well as any in-person meetings. Many emphasized that with fewer in-person meetings and some people working from home, it was difficult to maintain normal communications. Others mentioned that the general environment is a distraction that is getting in the way of their daily routine work.

But bans on travel and meetings are certainly not the full extent of what they are dealing with. As seen in Figure 2, there are other tough issues faced by food processors and service providers, and they are evenly distributed across a number of areas. Many mentioned difficulties getting employees to come to work either because of scheduling issues (e.g., children home from school with no child care options) or a general fear of being exposed to others in a group at work. Other reported problems around logistics and supply chains. Some mentioned difficulties in getting needed raw materials for production, especially those coming from China and other countries, which are now being held up or delayed.

There was also a clear concern about the continuity of not just raw materials, but other items that they need to continue production. One area for which people expressed a particular concern was their supply of cleaning and disinfecting chemicals. With the additional efforts to clean and sanitize many facilities more frequently—certainly food plants but also hospitals, retail food stores, hotels, and other high traffic areas—demand for sanitizing chemicals has sharply risen. Processors told us that they are seeing signs that these chemicals are at risk of becoming in short supply, which could present a future possibility of an interruption their ability to produce safe food. One respondent, however, who identified themselves as being from a major cleaning service and chemical supply company, said that they were aware of this additional demand and that they “…have maximized our production of sanitizers and disinfectants.”

The crisis is also clearly causing a change in demand for many food processors. As can be seen in Figure 3, 61 percent of companies have seen a change in their sales volume, with those seeing a decrease somewhat outnumbering those seeing an increase. For those reporting a decrease, most cited reduced orders, especially from foodservice operations. Of those seeing an increase, many companies had similar comments to the one that came from a baker who said, “We produce bread, and with most vendors having difficulties maintaining supply, we are producing more to fill the gap.” Processors who sell other staples, such as rice, pasta, and beans, are reporting large increases in orders with one company that sells dry beans reporting “Our demand has increased at least tenfold.” Another company reported that it is seeing a significant reduction in demand from their foodservice customers, as restaurants and foodservice operations (e.g., schools, college) close, but are also seeing a corresponding increase in demand from their retail customers. They are adapting by reassigning employees to work in different areas, shifting from foodservice to retail supply to react to this change.

Another commented “Part of our company also produces alcohol, which is in high demand right now.” Not a surprising result.

Anticipating that many companies would be having issues with employee attendance, which could present a risk to their ability to run their food safety programs, we asked if companies were having food safety staff attendance issues (Figure 4). The good news is that 84 percent of companies reported that they do not have a shortage of employees. Also, when asked if the current environment has impacted their ability to run their food safety program, roughly 82 percent said “No.”

The longer this crisis lasts, of course, the more uncertainties processors will face. With none of us knowing how long this crisis will persist, the resilience of all businesses may be tested. We wanted to get an assessment of this factor from processors and find out how long they think they can continue to operate if the crisis were to continue long term.

The good news (Figure 5) is that 50 percent report that they will be able to operate 6 months or longer under current conditions, with most saying they could continue for a year or more. The bad news is about 13 percent report that they may not be able to persist for as much as another month. Unfortunately, four companies reported that they have already been forced to close.
Many of the respondents added caveats to their answers, saying that they assume that they can remain open and in production, but are keeping a close eye on their availability of supply and making the assumption that their employees can continue to keep coming to work. It is not surprising that food processing has a limited number of employees who can work from home.

It should also not be a surprise that most processors describe the current situation as “fluid.” There are so many factors to watch that could impact their business that they say their planning is being adjusted “day by day.”

We agree. And, and we always do, we will continue to monitor what is happening in food safety and processing as this crisis continues. Check back here for periodic updates, and as always, we will report to you the latest insights as we uncover them.