Under the cloud of Covid-19, the US food industry must follow these five collective actions in 2021 - Just Food
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Under the cloud of Covid-19, the US food industry must follow these five collective actions in 2021

17 Dec 2020 (Last Updated December 17th, 2020 13:26)

just-food's Stateside columnist Victor Martino has put forward five actions the industry should follow during what looks set to be another year shaped by Covid-19.

Under the cloud of Covid-19, the US food industry must follow these five collective actions in 2021

In his annual look at the trends that could shape US packaged food in the next 12 months, just-food’s Stateside columnist Victor Martino has put forward five actions the industry should follow during what looks set to be another year shaped by Covid-19. 

When I sat down last year to outline and write my annual megatrends column for 2020, it was business as usual in the consumer packaged goods sector. Big legacy brands still ruled the sales roost but were busy fighting off insurgent small brands, although focusing on improving performance was becoming more of a dominant theme for emerging brands, particularly those with outside funding.

Exogenous trends such as the growing movement towards packaged foods and drinks that offered wellness benefits and the increasing desire to curb food waste were of a positive bent. The battle between alternative meat and ‘Big Meat’ was in the headlines near-daily, and seemed extremely relevant. And the convergence of food and beauty, something that seems completely superfluous in December 2020, was in reality an emerging trend.

But then came March 2020 and all that appeared solid, both in life and in the packaged food industry, melted into thin air. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, which is now worse in the US than it’s been in the last ten months, changed everything. The quest for wellness products has been replaced with the simple quest for essentials at the grocery store. Toilet paper and hand sanitiser and not better-for-you packaged foods and drinks are the “most popular” CPG products of 2020, and likely will continue to be long into 2021.

A strained supply chain became the most important industry focus in 2020. Legacy brands, in many cases, went from being disrupted by smaller brands to double-digit sales gains. Who would have thought, for example, that sales of canned goods would have been so high in 2020 that there would be a shortage of the tin used to make them? Or that frozen-food sales would have a 20%-plus sales gain over the previous year?

When I sat down to write this year’s column, I realised that, because 2020 has been anything but business as usual, none of us have a good handle on what 2021 will bring. With a vaccine in sight, we hope it will be a much better year than this one but uncertainty and optimism – and I am an eternal optimist – is the best any honest columnist can offer in December 2020.

Therefore I had to flip the script this year. What I’d like to offer instead of my standard megatrends fare are five suggestions for the US packaged-food industry for 2021. These are a list of positive things we can do collectively as an essential industry for 2021 in this time of Covid-19. And 2021 is going to be a continued time of Covid-19.

Keep feeding America

The food and grocery industry has risen to great challenges over the last ten months, keeping America fed.

The industry has proven it is essential. The thanks for this go to those who work in the less glamorous parts of the industry, from those on the food processing factory floor to retail grocery clerks. We owe more gratitude and support.

Unfortunately their – and our – job is far from over. The industry needs to take a deep breath (2020 has been difficult and stressful) and continue to focus on job number one, which is feeding America, from the farm to the food processing plant to the grocery store, in 2021.

Keep on giving

The industry has risen to the occasion this year and donated substantially to food banks and other programmes providing emergency food to our friends and neighbours in need.

Unfortunately, the need for emergency food is greater right now than it's been all year, and food bank officials say it won't slow down in 2021.

As an industry, we need to redouble our efforts to support food banks with donations in 2021. Industry efforts can be the difference between families receiving or missing a meal. We need to keep filling the void that exists despite government programmes. 

Become part of the solution

On 20 January, a new president, Joe Biden, will take office. The Biden administration is faced with the herculean task of getting Americans vaccinated against Covid-19 while devising ways to prevent the spread of the virus at the same time.

This task will consume the first year of the new administration's efforts. Everything else from a policy perspective will be secondary. The food industry can play an important role in helping the new administration achieve its objective by offering its talents and expertise across the board – from the supply chain expertise that might be used to help deliver the vaccine to the vast network of grocery stores across America that could serve as neighbourhood vaccination centres.

Most importantly, we as an industry need to put aside any political differences we might have and do all we can to help get America well again. 

Build on consumer trust

Consumer trust in the food and grocery industries has risen significantly in 2020. We've been there for Americans and they appreciate it. The industry's brand equity is up and we shouldn't waste the opportunity to strengthen it.

For example, two lessons learned from Covid-19 is dietary-linked conditions like obesity and diabetes are comorbidities that lead to more severe cases of Covid-19 including higher incidences of death.

The food industry has an important role to play in helping to reduce obesity and other dietary-related conditions among Americans. I suggest the industry think seriously about this and put a focus on trying to do all it can to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem in 2021. I don't have the answers but I believe we can do better than we have been doing.

Greater community of interest

Historically the food industry has been like a national – and, in many ways, global – community of interest. This may sound trite but it isn't.

That's changed over the last two decades or so, largely because of mergers, acquisitions, technology and a general sense of depersonalisation. We can't go back to the time of greater community nor should we pine for it, but what we can do is figure out how we can use the pandemic to forge a greater sense of community in our industry – both online and, when we are able to do so, face-to-face – starting in 2021.

There's an old saying that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. I think the industry is in need of greater community and solidarity and there's no better time than 2021 to start working towards achieving that goal.

I'm primarily a food industry practitioner rather than a pundit. As such, what I offer here is the same that I offer my clients and those in the industry who've reached out to me over the last few months. My prognosis for 2021 is an optimistic one – a return to normalcy with some lessons learned. It's the only megatrend that really matters as we close out 2020.

just-food columnist Victor Martino is a California-based strategic marketing and business development consultant, analyst, entrepreneur and writer, specialising in the food and grocery industry. He is available for consultation at: victormartino415@gmail.com and https://twitter.com/VictorMartino01.