By Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, FMI 

20171205-FMI-Store Shoot-0876_ed

It wasn’t that long ago that the meat industry was grappling with the emergence of enormous pandemic challenges.

These challenges included supporting workforce safety, keeping production going and reacting to supply chain pressures.

Fast forward to today, a year after lockdowns began, and the picture is brighter. The meat industry has worked hard to address its challenges — and has succeeded in getting past the worst of it.

Now there’s an opportunity to consider lessons learned and ways to enhance strategies. That was the topic of a recent FMI webinar that is part of our ongoing FreshForward Conversation series. The webinar featured my discussion with Joe Weber, chief commodity and hedging officer of the meat supplier Smithfield. This discussion took place about six months after another Smithfield executive addressed the FreshForward audience back in August of 2020.

Reducing Workforce Challenges

During the webinar, Joe recalled the huge challenges faced early in the pandemic — and he relayed the company’s major investments since that time to support its mission of keeping people safe and providing food.

“We spent over $500 million to fight COVID, including with testing, PPE, paid time off for vulnerable employees, bonus pay and other strategies to support workers,” he said.

The company has learned a lot about how to keep the workforce safe. However, many of the same workforce engagement challenges that existed before the pandemic are still present. He added these include the imperative of figuring out how to attract, train and retain employees in a U.S. labor market that in general hasn’t been growing.

Navigating Assortment Complexity

The meat industry, like so many other food industry sectors, reduced SKU complexity during the pandemic to focus on items in highest demand.

“SKU reduction allowed for longer runs and made us more efficient as U.S. food producers,” Joe said. “Both processors and retailers have been pleased with the results.

“This simplification strategy will likely endure until a time when consumers insist on more variety,” he added.

Addressing Production Flexibility

The food industry faced challenges early in the pandemic to convert foodservice production lines to the needs of retail — at a time when demand was spiking at food stores. Smithfield and the meat industry reacted quickly and learned key lessons.

“We’ve done things to become more flexible between foodservice and retail,” Joe said. “We’ve gained knowledge in case we have to adjust in this way again.”

However, he added that a comparable future crisis would still challenge industry flexibility.

Outlook for Enhancing Progress

I believe Smithfield and the meat industry have done a great job during the pandemic under highly stressful circumstances. Moreover, I am confident in the industry’s ability to adapt and optimistic about future prospects.

Speaking of success, FMI will be supporting the fresh foods industry’s success every step of the way in 2021 and beyond. Here are a few important things to look out for this year:

  • FreshForward 2021, developed in collaboration with Deloitte, is scheduled for August 17 to 19 in Minneapolis.
  • We’ll continue the monthly editions of FreshForward Conversation webinars, including perspective from Barb Renner of Deloitte, our FreshForward collaborative partner.

We hope you’ll join us for these upcoming events that help enhance the entire fresh community.

FreshFoward Conversation Webinar Recording