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3 Lessons COVID-19 Taught Us About Food Supply Chain Logistics

What is the biggest lesson that COVID-19 has taught us about food supply chain logistics? Vulnerability.

As Americans enter the period we have tenuously dubbed “post-pandemic”, we now have greater insight into precisely what happened over the course of a year. What we learned is that the weaknesses inherent in supply chain logistics cracked open and exposed themselves – companies were forced to adapt on the fly.

In a recent poll conducted by EY, the top priorities that supply chain logistics is focusing on are increasing visibility, efficiency, sustainability, and reskilling their labor in digital technologies. As companies look to improve their food supply chain logistics, they should take note of what happened over the past year, and how these lessons can be applied to their business today and tomorrow.

3 Lessons from COVID-19 and Food Supply Chain Logistics

Securing the Supply Chain

Looking back over the course of the year, food manufacturers were some of the first hotspots for COVID-19 exposures. These businesses, deemed essential, continued to operate over the course of the pandemic, with many quickly installing barriers to prevent contamination between staff, and, adjusted production line staffing to accommodate social distancing, which diminished output capacity. Even so, industries like meat manufacturing require close contact to stay productive. When mass illness shut down operations, the rest of the food supply chain had to quickly pivot.

On the other end of the spectrum, panic buying was commonplace in the early days of the pandemic. Grocery stores were often stripped bare of basic food items liked canned goods and flour. Restaurant groups who operated under a takeout model were placed under similar restrictions – and had to learn quickly about what to do when supplies are limited.

Restaurants that were able to coast during the pandemic shared one thing in common: visibility. Food supply chains that had the greatest visibility were able to make critical decisions that led to their success by anticipating problems before situations grew dire. These businesses also relied on less linear supply chains, able to source from more integrated networks rather than relying on a sole partner.

To perform both functions, many supply chain experts are relying on technological advancements to perform supply chain gap analysis. Advances in IT devices has allowed data to be gathered on goods throughout the supply chain lifecycle, including temperature monitoring for frozen foods.

Efficiency Through Automation

Food manufacturing facilities are now increasingly relying on automation to accomplish their goals at speed. It’s no surprise that manufacturers that invested most fully in automation had less concerns around COVID-19 outbreaks in their factories – with less risk of person-to-person transmission and more reliance on machines, manufacturers could operate faster and safer than their competition.

With the widespread embrace of automation, workers are now being reskilled to operate these machines. Technology has also allowed for these manufacturers to perform predictive maintenance, decreasing unplanned downtime and identify manufacturing bottlenecks before they become a problem.

While automation has mostly been relegated to the assembly line, it has grown to include live tracking, environmental controls, and quality control. Over the course of the next decade, it will play a prominent role in all aspects of food supply chain logistics.

Commitment to Sustainability

Sustainability in the food supply chain is more than just a buzzword: it’s a methodology that can help businesses cut costs by eliminating waste. The pandemic did not lessen the impact that environmental sustainability goals (ESG) play in the supply chain: 85% of companies have doubled down on their commitment to ESGs. In the UK, nearly a third of their largest businesses have committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

By adopting lean supply chain management techniques, food manufacturers can become more efficient, saving money while reducing their carbon emissions. This is appealing not only from a cost perspective, but from the perspective of socially conscious consumers.

COVID-19 Revealed the Cracks in Food Supply Chain Logistics

The food supply chain can be broken into five stages: agricultural production, postharvest handling, processing, distribution, and consumption. Unlike diseases like the bird flu, E. coli, or foot and mouth disease, it did not directly affect production as it didn’t spread through livestock or agriculture. This illustrates how the most important safety measures happened in the latter stages of production, rather than the preliminary stages. It also shows how much worse it could have been.

Hopefully, none of us will see another pandemic in our lifetimes. Yet even as we return to eating at restaurants and spending time around others unmasked, we cannot discount the importance of the lessons we have gained over the past year. After COVID-19, visibility, automation, and sustainability dominate the conversation around food supply chain logistics.

Are you ready to take the next step in managing your supply chains? Purchasing Partners can help. Contact us today to learn about how we assist restaurant groups with distribution management, contract management, and more.

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