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The COVID-19 impact on the food processing industry in 2021
Wednesday, 16 December, 2020, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Libby Costin
There can be no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the consumer landscape, accelerated trends and created new concerns and needs that are changing the way we view food safety, food security and the environment – a mindset that we can say with a strong degree of certainty is here to stay. The Tetra Pak Index 2020, our annual global survey covering the latest food and beverage trends, developed in partnership with Ipsos, has clearly revealed a growing consumer focus on the responsibilities of the companies they are buying from. We are looking at these concerns, ranging from food safety to supply chain traceability and sustainability, to see how this is set to inform future industry trends into 2021 and beyond.

Food safety increasingly front of mind
According to our research, over two-thirds of respondents agree that ‘food safety is a major concern for society’, putting it first together with ‘Covid-19 as a real threat’. Consumers are much less sure about food safety compared to previous years, with 6 in 10 saying they worry about the food they buy being hygienic and safe. Our data also shows a 10 per cent increase in global concern about food safety and future food supplies, now at 40 per cent, compared to 30 per cent when merged as a single topic from 2019. And the burden of responsibility is placed on manufacturers - respondents now overwhelmingly hold them accountable for food safety (at 55 per cent, which is way ahead of governments at 45 per cent).

Interestingly, we also found that packaging provides key indicators to reassure consumers. For example, the expiry date is considered a vital sign of food safety, with 67 per cent thinking that a product may be unsafe to consume once this date has passed – only just below the product smelling bad (70 per cent). We see interest in ‘active’ packages and intelligent expiry labels that can tell consumers whether or not a product is still safe to consume: the latter is indicated by 66 per cent of respondents among the top three relevant innovations in food and beverage production and packaging, second only to ‘solutions able to protect food for longer to avoid waste and maintain nutritional value’.

It's worth notice that both choices are relevant to two key areas: food waste and food safety. Also, a lid/cap is important to consumers, with half saying they feel reassured if a product has one. Moreover, 58 per cent cite that ensuring a package is kept well-closed after opening helps keep food safe. Other considerations rated highly by consumers when considering whether a product is safe to consume include the outside appearance of the package – with 58 per cent saying that a damaged package speaks to a product that is unsafe to consume – and transparency of product information. Again, here lies a chance for better on-pack communication and connected packages, by enabling consumers to scan an on-pack QR code to access a range of online information about the product’s source, environmental credentials, recycling points and more. While consumers in some markets have been slow to adopt such scanning, this has changed rapidly in the Covid-19 ‘touch-free’ era.

Our Index further supports this, as consumers are much less sure about aspects of food safety that they don’t control, suggesting an opportunity for brands to provide more information about production methods and especially provenance – one of the strongest drivers of purchasing decisions. Globally, 6 in 10 people say they really care about how food and beverages are produced and want to know everything they can about the process.
Prevailing environmental concerns
When excluding the global impact of Covid-19, we identified that public concern for the environment remains strikingly powerful, even when considering economic issues. While food safety is recognised as a major issue for society – as just mentioned - food waste is also rising up the consumer agenda, and fast: it is now seen as a concern by more than three-quarters of respondents. These findings point towards a new dilemma facing consumers as we try to grapple with the existential need for safe food and the future of our planet.

At Tetra Pak, sustainability is core to how we operate as a business and is central to our 2030 Strategy. On this regard, we have identified three focus areas: The first is to mitigate climate change, by minimising the impact of our products and operations. To address this, in June 2020, we set an ambitious goal: to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in our own operations by 2030, with a similar ambition across the value chain by 2050.

The second is to advance the circular economy, which includes eliminating litter and waste as well as enhancing the recycling infrastructure. This is also in part driven by legislative changes, with a strong focus on single-use plastics. Finally, the third is to protect biodiversity. All three areas are key long-term initiatives and are inextricably interlinked. In addressing climate change, we cannot ignore the materials impact and the role that packaging can potentially play. Neither can we limit our focus to ‘reduce, recycle and reuse' when promoting circularity.

Working closely with our suppliers, customers and stakeholders across the value chain we are already on a journey to create the ultimate sustainable food package - a carton package that is made solely from responsibly sourced renewable or recycled materials, is fully recyclable and carbon-neutral, allowing ambient distribution and meeting food safety requirements. This, we believe, is a critical step in building a sustainable future for the next generation.

Emerging trends into 2021 and beyond
In the wake of the pandemic and its economic impact, many consumers around the world are facing immediate pressures on immediate needs (health and disposable income). This is resulting in new purchasing patterns that we believe will stay relevant in the next year, such as growing preference for preventive health products (like immunity-boosting foods) and  increased demand for packaged food – especially when the packaging is able to reassure consumers on the safety of the content, for instance by being ‘tamper-proof’ sealed. At-home consumption occasions have also gone through some re-shuffling, and this opened the door to more frequent snacking and indulgence moments, besides offering more occasions for home cooking. As a consequence, we saw carton-packaged basic food for ambient distribution – such as UHT milk, sauces, table wine – grow. Our innovation legacy gives us the privilege and the responsibility to continue to help manufacturers cope with this new landscape of consumer needs and concerns.
Also, since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak we had to adapt and adopt new ways to support our customers to help maintain food supplies worldwide. On services we are increasingly using digital technologies such as virtual commissioning and remote installation, allowing us to be quicker in response time and keep our customers' operations running. We have seen some positive outcomes in Europe and Central Asia as a result. In addition, physical distancing has required us to rethink the way we interact with our customers and we have quickly transformed the way we work across many activities such as product development, product trials, ideation initiatives and workshops. For example, we have moved all our product trials for customers into the virtual world: as timing is a critical element for the success of new product developments, virtual trials have been key to ensure customers are not missing these vital windows of opportunity. Not only did the quality of our virtual trials match the outcomes of our traditional face to face approach, but in some instances they increased the customer involvement because without the need to travel, more customers could observe each trial. Overall, these ‘touch-less’ opportunities save time and, naturally, cut carbon emissions.
We believe that the industry must embrace speed and agility now more than ever as we all begin to navigate a post-Covid landscape.

(The author is vice president of marketing for Tetra Pak)
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