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Empty stores shelves were a stark reminder of how COVID-19 disrupted the supply chain, and meat cases across America were no different. Getty Images News/Scott Heins
Empty stores shelves were a stark reminder of how COVID-19 disrupted the supply chain, and meat cases across America were no different.

COVID-19 changes the way we view food supply

Opportunities presented by pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed the way people think about the world, and it definitely has changed the way people think about our food supply.

"I think we all know how tight our food supply chain really is," says Joe Weber, Smithfield Foods executive vice president of Growth and Business Development. "It's not just a just-in-time, it's a really-just-in-time supply chain across the entire system. We've got a very tight supply chain."

Weber and Bill Even, National Pork Board chief executive officer, participated in a webinar on Thursday sponsored by SVG Ventures and moderated by John Hartnett, SVG Ventures CEO and founder.

"I think as a society, we've got to think about that going forward and how we adapt," Weber says. "We've got to be prepared for crisis, and I think the good thing coming through this is, we'll all be stronger. But we've got to prepare for any kind of crisis. We're not over COVID by any stretch of the imagination. And we've got to continue to keep people safe and provide food."

Smithfield Foods, like most all meat processors, learned early on the impact that a human disease — COVID-19 — can have on a company producing animal protein as harvest facilities were shut down or slowed as plant workers were sickened by the disease.

Food safety and worker safety are imperative to a company such as Smithfield, and that shows as all employees at the company's more than 40 U.S. facilities have been provided free, on-demand COVID-19 testing. The company has also implemented processes, protocols and protective measures to ensure that plant workers remain healthy and are able to continue to produce a safe food supply for consumers.

Catering to consumers is the main focus of the National Pork Board, and that was quite evident as COVID-related shelter-in-place orders brought people to the realization that they were on their own as most restaurants were closed, forcing consumers to shop for and prepare their own food at home.

"People really understood what's real. You get back to first principles and when people realized that they were going to be sheltering at home and they needed to feed themselves and their families," NPB's Even says. "The restaurants were closing, but the grocery stores remained open. What you saw both in the U.S. as well as around the world is people immediately trying to find things that were familiar or fresh or things that they knew were going to provide them protein for who knows how long before they would be able to get back to the grocery store, and what would be available."

Even adds that the COVID lesson has maybe gotten people's attention. "Often here in the United States, and in some of the more industrialized countries, we kind of take food for granted. It's always there, it's ever present. It's in the cupboard, it's in refrigerators, in the freezer, it's in the store, it's in the restaurant. Food is omnipresent."

But then, all of a sudden it's maybe not as plentiful as the public is accustomed. "If you think about it from the terms of Maslow's hierarchy, we get down to some really base principles at the bottom of that triangle. And it's about food, clothing, shelter, health of myself and my family. And I think it presents a real opportunity."

Even says the NPB took advantage of that opportunity and "aggressively ramped up" the organization's digital engagement. "We immediately pivoted a lot of our marketing and got just basic information for the Gen Z and Millennials that suddenly have a pork loin or a pork roast or a ham and weren't quite sure how to cook it. What do I do?," Even says. "Then suddenly I've got to watch my budget. So how do I cook once and eat three times. You know, the old-fashioned idea of leftovers and what do we do with them?"

In addition to maintaining an ample, healthy food supply, Even and Weber understand the need to be concerned about the environmental footprint of the U.S. swine industry. Smithfield Foods is the largest hog production company in the United States, and ranks No. 3 globally, so having a keen eye on the environment is key.

Every company worth its weight needs to operate with an ROI, return on investment, but Weber says Smithfield has a different spin on that: responsibility, operational excellence and innovation. "There's got to be a return on investment," he says, "but we have to be responsible for everything we do. We strive every day for efficiency and operational excellence and innovation's part of our DNA. We've got to continue to make it part of our DNA. … but what really drives us every day is our sustainability platform. Those five legs of our sustainability in terms of animal care, the environment, food safety and quality, communities and people. That drives us every day. That drives a big part of our innovation."

U.S. livestock production has a bullseye on its back from a variety of factions, not the least of which are environmental groups. Even believes that is misplaced blame, saying that less than 0.3% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to pork production.

"I think that surprises a lot of people," Even says. "We're not the demon in the middle of this, but we've got a role to play. … we're already pretty close to that neutral spot. And so, we've sat down with our board of directors, a 15 farmer-member board, and said, 'let's head for the carbon neutral pig. Let's figure out how we do that.'"

To make that happen, the NPB has partnered with the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board, "because ultimately over about 60% of our footprint actually comes from the feed that we produce. This is all part of the system, and everybody's got to do their part if we're going to change the end result and be able to put something on a package label for consumers."

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