Since the pandemic began, the grocery industry has been at the forefront, rapidly adapting and implementing measures to ensure that Canadians continue to have access to safe food. “In Their Own Words” brings the behind-the-scenes stories of retailers and suppliers to Grocery Business' readers.
Michael Graydon, CEO, Food & Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC)
When Canada confirmed its first case of COVID-19 months ago, few imagined how quickly our lives would change. The pace and scope of disruption has been relentless.
It has felt at times as though we are barely scrambling from one stage of the crisis to the next. Government scrambling to contain the spread of COVID-19 while avoiding catastrophic economic damage, industry scrambling to respond to radical changes in demand while keeping workers safe, and everyday Canadians scrambling to keep themselves and their families safe and afloat in this new reality.
Despite these unprecedented challenges, it is important to acknowledge our truly remarkable accomplishment - the entire food and consumer goods supply chain has consistently delivered.
FCPC’s first task was to advise our members on the top priority - keeping our colleagues safe. We compiled one of the earliest best practice guides for businesses - providing our manufacturing members easy access to the top recommendations for protecting employee and facility health and safety.
The job was not easy. Just as manufacturers were racing to implement enhanced protocols to prevent COVID-19 infection, demand spiked up to 500 per cent above normal for some products. Finely tuned processes that worked smoothly in January felt clumsy and ill-suited to the sudden collapse of some demand channels at the same time others rocketed to unforeseen heights.
When confusion about essential businesses raised possible difficulties for employees commuting between work and home, we created letters of safe passage to help allay concerns.
Significant cost increases have hit 75 per cent of leading food and consumer goods manufacturers, while productivity has decreased by up to 25 per cent due to infection mitigation measures like staggering shifts, increasing physical distancing on production lines, and enhancing procedures for facility entry and health screening.
These impacts are severe enough that one-fifth of Canada’s leading manufacturers anticipate they could experience cash flow issues within three months. Smaller businesses appear to be particularly vulnerable, as 80 per cent of smaller businesses responding to a March survey reported their sales actually decreased by up to 50 per cent compared to the same time last year.
Nevertheless, in all but a very few cases, production and supply held strong. We made smart choices, facilitated by collaboration and compromise. A large majority of manufacturers increased production and reduced product assortment to focus on supplying the most essential goods. Facilities implemented contingency plans to keep production running around the clock and no matter how many team members fell ill.
As restrictions brought cross-border travel and export opportunities to dangerous lows, our agricultural partners lost much-needed workers and saw overseas sales disappear. Still, farmers worked tirelessly to plant and harvest the ingredients we all rely on, shouldering tremendous uncertainty.
Our partners in retail bore the brunt of consumers’ rush to stock up. In the midst of tremendous efforts to keep stores open and safe, retailers opened their doors for frequent and honest communication with manufacturers about how to fairly, equitably, and efficiently meet demand in stores across the country.
FCPC very early on resolved to organize our efforts around the principles of reaction, resilience, and recovery. These stages are not linear. While we are all eager to see normalcy return and feel that recovery is near, it is all too clear that future waves of infection will demand new reactions and test our efforts to improve resilient supply chains.
Our obligations to our communities go far beyond our businesses. To contribute to Canada’s COVID response and relief efforts, our members have made significant cash and food donations to charities, switched production lines to make and donate needed items like hand sanitizer, donated food and supplies to hospitals and health care workers, and more. We have been proud to celebrate and amplify these efforts.
How the food and consumer products sector recovers will have far-reaching consequences for our economy. Unfortunately, our sector did not enter the pandemic at full strength. FCPC has long argued that uncompetitive tax, regulatory, and retail conditions have limited employment, production, investment, and innovation in Canada’s food and consumer goods manufacturing sector and supply chains.
Within the supply chain and with government support, we must commit to strengthening competitiveness in this key sector as an engine for recovery. Simple, common-sense measures can reduce unnecessary costs and regulation, address labour shortages, secure ingredient supply, promote trade, and ensure fair business practices across the supply chain.
At every step, we know Canadians are counting on us. We are constantly working to move beyond crisis reactions and toward building resilience. Our concrete actions will continue to be focused on keeping employees, facilities, and products safe; giving back to our communities; and advocating for measures that will ensure the nation’s largest manufacturing workforce can reach our full potential as an engine for Canada’s recovery and self-reliance.
Michael Graydon is Chief Executive Officer of Food & Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC). For more information about food and consumer product manufacturing in Canada and the COVID-19 response, visit www.fcpc.ca/foodisfundamental.