Near the end of December 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, Wuhan City, China, reported several pneumonia cases that officials eventually tied to a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, now generally known as COVID-19. Before the conclusion of January, this insidious coronavirus had breached U.S. borders. Since that time, the resulting global pandemic has wreaked havoc on public health.
According to the “COVID Data Tracker” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of by December 2020, at the time of this writing, the pandemic in the U.S. has resulted in over 16 million cases and over 300,000 deaths.
Globally, according to the “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard” from the World Health Organization, by December 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in over 70 million confirmed cases and over 1.5 million deaths.
Despite the economic downturn for some industries in the ongoing wake of this global pandemic, food producers, as essential businesses, continued operation where possible, but many have faced significant safety challenges related to personnel and operational efficiency.
Crisis planning and managing a crisis require different skills, notes Rob Sarlls, president & CEO, Wyandot, Marion, OH, and Chairman of the Board for SNAC International. “Crisis planning takes place in a controlled environment. Real-world reaction demands continuous assessment, insight, and—most important—flexibility. You can never rule out anything.” He notes this has been especially true with respect to COVID-19, where society’s initial understanding of the virus and its patterns was so limited.
“Wyandot is an essential business,” says Sarlls. “Our senior leadership team responded to the warning signs early. Entering March, it was clear we would be rewriting our well-crafted crisis plan in real-time. By mid-month we were holding daily meetings to review ever-changing public health developments around COVID-19 and creating new companywide policies and procedures that tracked the virus’s erratic changes.”
As a result, Wyandot was able to get quickly distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to teammates. “We provided real-time, sensitive updates on how to avoid getting COVID and bringing it into our plant,” says Sarlls. “The company encouraged those feeling ill to secure telemedicine visits promptly, for which we paid. We also developed protocols for encountering infections well in advance, including frequent deep cleaning throughout the entire plant. We went six months without a single positive test. When teammate infections did occur, we were prepared with isolation, contact tracing, and quarantine measures. And when community spread ran rampant, we proactively provided tests for every employee to help limit the spread of the virus within our four walls.” In total, Wyandot incurred only three full days of downtime, he notes.
Another member of the SNAC International Board of Directors reports the following steps their company has taken for its pandemic mitigation control plan:
Follow CDC and state guidelines. Create and update state plans, including training, based on published standards.
Post signage, keeping it refreshed, throughout facilities at front entrances, bulletin boards, and break areas listing symptoms to watch for and protocols to follow, highlighting expectations to stay home or to leave work if symptoms start.
Increase sanitation in high-traffic and high-touch areas with spray solution on a daily basis.
Place hand sanitizer dispensers in entrances, break rooms, and common areas. Distribute hand sanitizer and face masks (cloth and disposable) to all associates. Make face shields and nitrile gloves available.
Require all who work to wear masks unless eating or drinking.
Place partitions on break room tables and on lines where associates are normally not able to practice physical distancing.
Cease using biometric features on time clocks.
Post reminders on floors and elsewhere to stay six feet apart in buildings. Sales associates wear vests with messaging on their backs to stay six feet from them.
Allow associates to work from home when able.
Limit business travel, opting for virtual meetings.
Limit participants to no more than 10 for in-house meetings.
Create a task force meeting on a weekly basis to provide updates on supplies; CDC, OSHA, FDA, and state agriculture policies and procedures; relevant news; and more.
Designate a Wellness Manager as a resident expert who handles case management, communicating with all presumed and positive associates to ensure quarantine requirements and to follow recovery, conduct contact tracing, and prepare written communications to the workforce when positive cases arise.
Hold 1:1 meeting with any associate potentially exposed to stress to them to monitor their health and symptoms.
“Employee appreciation and safety have certainly moved to the front of the line if they were not priorities of your team pre-COVID,” says Justin Spannuth, vice president and chief operations officer, Unique Snacks, Reading, PA, and a member of the SNAC International Board of Directors. “It is definitely a necessary mindset in all industries, so I am happy to see that it is getting the attention it deserves. I hope it stays front and center for a long time to come.”
A COMMUNITY PERSPECTIVE
Certified B Corporations seek to balance profit and purpose—and recent months have offered myriad opportunities to serve. “Wyandot has fully embraced its B Corp identity and philosophical foundation,” says Sarlls. “Our team went into high gear at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide additional support for all of our stakeholders. We provided teammates with ‘hero pay’—an extra day’s pay for five consecutive days worked—for almost two months. We also furnished extra snacks for our teammates to share with less-fortunate family members. We donated extra PPE to first responders. We gave gift cards for our employees to use as a means of saying thank you and to help support local businesses.” Wyandot also made cash and non-cash donations to food banks and the Ohio Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, as well as providing free snacks to surrounding area school systems to supplement meals delivered to students’ homes.
“Achieving B Corp certification in early 2020 was an important step in our corporate journey, and an especially proud moment for our entire team,” says Sarlls. Wyandot had planned to announce this news at SNAXPO in March. “We outfitted an entire booth to help educate SNAC’s manufacturing and associate members about the importance of ‘Doing Well By Doing Good,’ both inside and outside our businesses. Obviously, we never got that opportunity. We have, however, shared our experience as a B Corp through a number of communications channels, including industry publications and podcasts, as well as our website and via social media. Our customers have taken notice of our B Corp journey. I’m proud to say that several are now beginning their own B Corp processes.”
THE NEW NORMAL
Despite some strong retail snack and bakery performance, the pandemic has taken its toll on several areas of business—including lost customers and operational costs related to COVID-19. “We lost business in the foodservice/restaurant channel, in some cases forever,” says Sarlls. “Several of our branded customers struggled for consumer attention and venture funding, while in-person merchandising went dark and financial markets went haywire. We incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars of excess costs directly due to the pandemic, including everything from extra cleaning and sanitation to paying for COVID tests and telemedicine. But, through it all, we took care of our customers and met their needs. That is our job.”
The corporate landscape will see some permanent shifts because of the pandemic. “What used to be inelegantly called ‘telecommuting’ went into high gear this year,” says Sarlls. “We don’t anticipate returning to a ‘five-day in the office presence’ any time soon—if ever. The life/work balance was already top of mind with most 21st century workers. Now that employees and businesses see the myriad benefits of flexible working, some mix of in-presence and at-home is the new normal.”
Employees who can work from home are continuing to do so—a situation that will continue for some time, suggests Rod Radalia, vice president of innovation, Aunt Millie’s Bakeries, Fort Wayne, IN, and a 1st vice chairman of the American Society of Baking Board of Directors. “The return date keeps getting extended. It is challenging in the bakeries, as the number of employees that cannot work keeps inching up. Rules have not changed in the bakery operations, but a constant reminder of them continues.”
Snacking can benefit from this shift. Better-for-you snacking, in particular, has an opportunity to align with Americans’ increased focus on health and wellness, says Sarlls. “As the economy recovers, there will be a higher level of disposable income (lower commuting costs) and a willingness to spend disposable income on premium food products, including better-for-you snacks.”
Some semblance of “normality” as we knew it will eventually return, suggests Ash Gurney, key account technical services manager, Dawn Food Products, Jackson, MI, and a member of the American Society of Baking Board of Directors. “There will be changes to the workplace, in hygiene, common areas, and of course to face to face interaction. However, looking at the experience and vision formed from the past six months, I think you will see the greater population’s reservations and fears settle over time. From this, only those changes practical for longer-term business, social interaction, and community acceptance will settle into a ‘new normal.’ I believe once we see effective global vaccination take effect, the fear of coronavirus and its effect on business operations will subside and bear a similar impact to the early-century food-safety practices implemented, which while significant in representation, will be relatively minor in overall industry impact.”
One positive takeaway from the pandemic is a renewed focus on health. “The needs for running a plant making food don’t change during a crisis, like a pandemic,” says Sarlls. “It is challenging and difficult to take care of our branded customers and underlying consumers while keeping the health and safety of our plant teammates at the forefront. The changes we made early in the pandemic—especially the awareness to the severity of the situation—changed behaviors enough to minimize the impact. Increased education around health will remain a critical part of our mission going forward. This includes introducing new wellness programs, support for smoking cessation, and vaccination awareness.”
The retail landscape is also shifting. “The movement toward online shopping has sped up, and it is going to take extra attention for all of the players involved to know how to best move forward,” says Spannuth. “Processes are far from settled, and it will be a constantly moving target for years.”
Workplace development will be a point of change, says Gurney. The pandemic has newly exposed the shortfall of skills and bakery career leadership across the industry, he suggests. “Based on this revelation, workforce development may finally begin the arduous process of rebuilding the baking industry experience base to a required and sustainable level. Dedicated training programs that stretch internally in companies, as well as across the greater industry, will be the longer-term outcome from this event.”
Workforce development, says Gurney, needs to become the torch we hold high as we enter our post-pandemic period, and will factor significantly into the future success of the industry.