Safety and transparency have been top priorities for food manufacturers during the pandemic, according to a panel of experts at Manufacturing Day hosted on Oct. 2 by New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.
Safety measures—“all around common sense,” according to Capital Manufacturing Consultants Managing Partner Jeffrey Hartman—aren’t just to keep the public safe, but to keep the trust of workers, explained NJMEP National Director of Food Bob Samalone.
“Manufacturers have to feel that their workers feel safe because all it takes is one outbreak, that could shut the factory down,” he said, noting the widely reported shutdowns of meat factories earlier in the pandemic.
To implement social distancing, space workers apart on the line; and in situations where it’s not possible, put up shielding, said Hartman. Review traffic paths throughout the plant, implement one-way areas and traffic restrictions. Scatter shifts to prevent clusters at the time clock.
“I had a company that was able to break their entire workforce into A and B shift and put them on 12 hours. The A shift went Monday through Wednesday 36 hours, and the B shift went Thursday through Saturday,” Hartman said.
Output has been the same, he said, and across the week, they’re meeting their demands.
Regarding transparency, NJMEP Food Industry Safety, Compliance & Regulatory Solutions Specialist Juliana Canale said, “Within COVID there’s been a lot of communications, a lot of policy, a lot of discussion about where can I get PPE?, what sanitizers are approved, what’s going to actually kill the virus…there’s been a lot more transparency that I’ve seen in the industry about things that may or may not have been as public-facing,” she said.
With the closure or slowing down of large clients like restaurants and school cafeterias, Salamone highlighted that food manufacturers have had to be creative in finding where and to whom to sell their products. Some food manufacturers have pivoted to making pet food, discussed Salamone and C&RS Consultant Chris DeMarco.
Safety hasn’t been the only key in the continuation of business—creativity has also had a hand.
“People are still climbing out of the box. I’ve seen some neat stuff from transition into nutraceuticals, as well as the pet food; some conversion into those products. As well as taking the opportunity to go organic or also identify some different cuisines that maybe they weren’t serving,” DeMarco said.
Some food manufacturers have also expanded to sell their wares through different retail models, including meal subscriptions like Purple Carrot, DeMarco noted.
And for some, they’ve transitioned to making entirely different products that they had been doing pre-pandemic.
Canale spoke of a dairy manufacturer that transitioned to making sanitizer, and Hartman spoke of a diagnostics group that also got into the sale of sanitizer.
“They had the equipment and materials, it just wasn’t one of their products. They’re into it full bore now, and its turned into one of their main product lines,” Hartman said.