Food Processing Firms: Consumer Attitudes
Food processing companies are closing their plants to prevent further outbreaks in their communities. Their messaging informs the public that while they are aware of their role in ensuring food security, their top priority is the health and safety of their employees and the communities they operate in. As a result of these closures, consumers are increasingly becoming concerned about product availability and food safety.
Messaging Around COVID-19
Through their messaging around COVID-19, top food processing companies, namely, JBS, Cargill, Kraft Heinz, Smithfield Foods, and Conagra, let consumers know that while they recognize the importance of food security, they consider the health and safety of employees and the community as their top priority, and they remain committed to keeping their plants clean and safe.
- On April 26, JBS announced that it would voluntarily close its plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin because of the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the community. The Green Bay plant was the fourth plant of JBS to stop operations due to outbreaks. JBS’s plants in Souderton, Pennsylvania and Greeley, Colorado already reopened, while its plant in Worthington, Minnesota remained closed.
- In relation to the COVID-19 crisis, JBS has so far conveyed through its messaging that it recognizes the essential role it plays in ensuring the public’s continued access to safe and affordable food, and that it is doing the best it can to keep operations running. However, the company notes that it understands that to help communities flatten the curve, it must temporarily close some of its plants.
- It highlights as well that it has implemented numerous safety measures to keep its workplaces clean and safe. Among these measures are temperature checks, extra personal protective gear, social distancing, sanitation, disinfection, and deep cleaning.
- On Facebook, the company has also emphasized that apart from enhanced safety measures, it has worker benefits and health protocols in place to ensure the safety of products, team members, and workplaces.
- Cargill recently shut down its meat plant operations in Hazleton, Pennsylvania to keep its employees safe and prevent further outbreak. It noted that Hazleton has been substantially affected by the crisis.
- The statement Cargill has released in relation to the closure of this plant indicates that the top priority of the company is the health and safety of its employees and the members of the community.
- Even though the closure is expected to disrupt food supply, the company understands that the closure is necessary to minimize infection.
- Its posts on Twitter and Facebook also show that the company strives to balance employee safety and food system resiliency.
- In April 2020, news broke out that two of Kraft Heinz’s employees in its Holland, Michigan plant tested positive for COVID-19. There were also three other employees in the plant that Kraft Heinz suspected to be positive.
- The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which represents the workers in the plant, also claimed that there had been delays in the provision of adequate personal protective equipment.
- In response to this news, Kraft Heinz released a statement saying that it has requested the aforementioned five employees to self-quarantine at home and contacted everyone who came in close contact with these employees. It had closed the plant for deep cleaning on April 19 and reopened it on April 20. It also mentioned that it has purchased protective masks, implemented social distancing and health questionnaires, and taken steps to implement temperature checks.
- It emphasized that while its number one priority is the well-being of its employees, and that it wants its employees to be safe and healthy, it has established controls to maintain the safety and quality of its food products.
- On Twitter, it also posted the preventative measures it is taking to ensure food security and worker safety.
- With 600 of its employees and 135 of their close contacts testing positive for COVID-19, the Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant of Smithfield Foods has become the biggest hotspot for the disease in the United States and one of the many plants of Smithfield to close. Smithfield Foods has been severely criticized online because of this.
- Because of the amount of flak it has received from the public, it has released or posted a number of messages to clear its name. For example, it has issued a statement to address each piece of misinformation it has seen in the media. The statement touched on several topics, namely, the reason behind continued operations, employee relations, responsibility bonus, protective measures, the Sioux Falls plant, and internal communications.
- In said statement, the company clarified that it is doing the best it can to sustain food supply and ensure the well-being and safety of its employees and the community. It clarified that it is not prioritizing profits over employees.
- On Twitter and Facebook, the company has posts addressing people’s questions and concerns regarding employee safety, and highlighting what it is doing to protect its people. In one post, it emphasized that keeping its employees healthy and safe is one of its core values.
- Frozen food manufacturer Conagra Brands halted operations at its plant in Marshall, Missouri after learning that 42 of its employees there have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The discovery prompted Conagra to issue a statement highlighting its commitment to keeping employees safe and healthy. In the statement, the company expressed how unfortunate it was that some of its employees were infected by the virus despite the social distancing protocols, temperature checks, and enhanced sanitization procedures it had in place.
- The company promises that when the Marshall plant opens, it will keep the workplace safe by implementing more rigorous maintenance, preventative, and sanitization measures.
- On its website, it has a page detailing its response to the COVID-19 crisis. On said page, the company enumerates the preventative measures it has taken to ensure employee safety, and the ways in which it has invested in communities.
Trends Around Grocery Shopping
The prioritization of product availability and the growing concern about food safety are two consumer trends around grocery shopping that have been observed during this COVID-19 crisis.
Prioritization of Product Availability
- Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are now giving more weight to product availability than to brand loyalty.
- With consumers encouraged to stay at home and reduce the number of times they go on grocery shopping trips, brand loyalty has understandably become less important now.
- Seventy-two percent of consumers find that they are not grocery shopping as often as they used to. Of consumers who shop in-store and find their preferred brand unavailable, 69% purchase a different brand, while only 14% forgo purchase.
- Another survey found that 87% of consumers encounter stock-outs when they go shopping at their grocery stores, and that nearly 80% of consumers would purchase a different brand or purchase at another store if their preferred brand is unavailable.
- At this time of crisis when millions of consumers compete for essential goods, brand names do not appear to be of importance. Based on another recent survey, brand names hold no weight in times of crisis for 85% of consumers.
- There was also a finding from another survey that 77% of Americans are concerned about food availability.
- Food processing plant closures might not lead to food shortage, but they are likely to result in less variety or fewer options for consumers.
Growing Concern About Food Safety
- Given reports that several workers at food processing plants are testing positive for COVID-19, some consumers are worrying that they may be infected through the products they buy from these plants.
- Linda Autry, for example, wrote to Steve Sbraccia, a consumer investigator, to ask if she can catch COVID-19 through food products that were handled by infected workers at food processing plants.
- Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they are concerned about food safety.
- A survey also found that millennials care about food safety. They worry about how meat products were handled in earlier stages of the supply chain.
- Whether the packaging is contaminated is a common concern among consumers. Scientists and health officials confirm, however, that the coronavirus cannot survive cooking temperatures.
- According to experts, the top concerns of consumers when it comes to food safety are whether the coronavirus can be transmitted through food, whether cooking can kill the coronavirus, whether animal products carry the coronavirus, whether raw food is safe to eat, and whether the coronavirus can be picked up from food packaging.
- It appears consumers are also concerned about the welfare of workers at food processing plants. Consumer groups call for more measures to protect both the food processing plant workers and the consumers buying the outputs of these food processing plants.