To say that COVID-19 has been disruptive would be putting it mildly. The pandemic’s sudden and seismic impact has brought major upheaval across industries—the food industry and its supply chain included.
There was the initial panic buying that drove upticks in consumer demand for which few manufacturers and grocers were prepared, resulting in widespread product shortages. With restaurants closed, distributors and suppliers were left with considerable excess inventory—most of which ended up as waste and losses. Inside production sites and plants, many had to try and maintain their output with a reduced workforce, even as demand continued to climb. Meanwhile, some plants unfortunately have had to shut down operations on account of employees testing positive for COVID-19.
In the time since the outbreak, the food supply chain has stabilized to an extent. Store shelves are continuously being replenished with products. Restaurants have started reopening with new health and safety measures. Yet even as the industry takes gradual steps toward recovery, the underlying problem that led to the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact persists: Lack of visibility. There was lack of visibility into supply and demand and what was happening upstream and downstream across the supply chain, which prevented timely, proactive action to optimize operations in face of disruption.
Looking ahead, participants across the food supply chain will need enhanced end-to-end visibility so that they can work together to get ahead of the curve. As part of gaining this visibility, they will need the transparent exchange of information and cohesive collaboration to adapt especially as the food industry continues to see shifts in consumer behavior and the marketplace in the wake of COVID-19—particularly in the following three key areas.
While food producers have been working tirelessly to keep grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens well stocked, there continues to be fluctuating availability on certain products, such as eggs, dairy, poultry and meat. This has led distributors and suppliers to increase their prices when selling these goods to stores and restaurants, who have had to then pass the additional costs on to consumers through their own price increases and surcharges, respectively. One report from CoBank, a cooperative bank part of the Farm Credit System, notes there could be as much as a 20% increase in the price of pork and beef this year due to supply issues.1 Many grocers have also implemented purchase limitations on consumers to combat shortages.
These downstream implications stem largely to uncertainty in the supply chain, with stores and restaurants unsure about available supply upstream and when they can expect to receive shipments. But if there was clearer visibility and transparency between production, distribution, transportation, food service and retail, then all parties could better anticipate and plan for supply shortages or delays. For instance, if a meat processing plant has to temporarily close due to cases of COVID-19, they can immediately communicate to the rest of the supply chain so that parties downstream can readily find alternative sources and minimize any necessary price inflations or other implications to consumers.
Even with the reopening of restaurants, people will likely choose to cook more of their meals at home. It was a trend that began with restaurant closures and will continue for the foreseeable future as consumers remain cautious of dining out. While this may bring tough times ahead for the food service industry, the grocery sector is seeing a huge lift in business. Research from restaurant management platform Crunchtime shows that, towards the end of June, restaurants were only seeing 64.5% of their pre-COVID-19 sales levels.2 At the same time, a study by Brick Meets Click and Mercatus reveals U.S. online grocery sales reached a record $7.2 billion in June, up nearly 10% over May.3
For food companies and brands, growth in the grocery sector has presented a challenge in the way of demand planning and forecasting. I’ve personally spoken with several company executives who have seen significant upticks in orders from their grocery channel partners—an increase for which they didn’t forecast—and are now struggling to adjust production levels accordingly to avoid the risk of excess production that would lead to unnecessary costs, wastes and losses. In such instances, real-time visibility into transactional activity and stock levels at the retail level would help production planners improve the accuracy of their forecasts and enable them to think steps ahead before orders come in and thereby optimally balance supply with demand. Stores would remain well stocked and the supply chain could flow in a more efficient and profitable way for all participants.
Without question, public health is the number one priority right now. Participants at each point in the food supply chain today need to communicate with each other, as well as to consumers, that they’re following best practices for social distancing, disinfecting and other precautions. It’s not to prevent the possible transfer of the virus via actual products, as the FDA notes there is currently no evidence of transmission through food or packaging. But rather, it’s to build greater confidence in the food supply chain—that everyone is doing their part to support individual and collective health and safety, which in turn prevents possible facility closures or other case-related bottlenecks that would inhibit consistent supply to the market.
There also has to be confidence that, amid these countermeasures for COVID-19, companies are still upholding their commitments to food safety, integrity and proper handling. What can support that confidence is data—shared data from every point in a product’s journey from source to shelf. The data should be transparent and available to all supply chain participants as well as immutable so that it is tamperproof and fully traceable should there be any problem, such as mislabeling or a foodborne illness. The data ultimately holds everyone accountable for their role in ensuring a safe food supply chain.
To achieve the level of visibility outlined above, the food industry will have to break away from legacy processes involving the siloed management of operational systems and databases. Instead, the disruption seen during COVID-19 and ongoing shifts in the marketplace should encourage companies to consider digital transformation and technologies that can enable a more cohesive and nimble food supply chain. These are technologies like blockchain, which provides a decentralized, distributed ledger to publish and share data in real time. Moreover, artificial intelligence that can leverage incoming real-time data to guide next-best actions, even when the unexpected occurs. Personally, I always return to the notion that the supply chain is a team sport. You need visibility to know what each team member is doing on the field and how to align everyone on a gameplay. The digital solutions available today offer that visibility and insight, as well as the agility to pivot as needed to obstacles along the journey from source to shelf.
- Taylor, K. (May 6, 2020). “The American meat shortage is pushing prices to unprecedented heights — here’s how it could affect your grocery bill.” Business Insider.
- Maze, J. (July 7, 2020). “As the coronavirus resurges, restaurant sales start slowing again.” Restaurant Business.
- Perez, S. (July 6, 2020). “US online grocery sales hit record $7.2 billion in June.” TechCrunch.