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Head of grocery group talks virus impact, shopping habits

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 11: Bottles of Clorox bleach sit on a shelf at a grocery store on February 11, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Shares of Clorox stock rose 7.6 percent to close at $71.26 after billionaire investor Carl Icahn disclosed in a regulatory filing that he holds close to 9.1 percent stake in the company. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — As Americans stockpile everything from canned soup to toilet paper, food and consumer products makers are scrambling to meet demand.

Companies like Clorox Co. and J.M. Smucker Co. are running their manufacturing plants 24/7 while reducing their product lines so they can get the products into stores faster. They’re also under pressure to protect their workers who’re on the front lines of the coronavirus.

The Associated Press recently interviewed Geoff Freeman, the CEO of the Consumer Brands Association — formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association — on a range of issues including the current status of supplies, protections for workers and customers’ shift away from organic food to packaged items like mac and cheese. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How does the industry’s supply chain brace for a pandemic?

A. I’m not sure that any of us would have been prepared for something we have never seen in our lifetimes, frankly our grandparents didn’t see in their lifetimes. It isn’t much a playbook to dust off as there is a put your head down, rise to the occasion and do everything you can do, and this industry has done just that.

Q. Are you seeing consumers’ stockpiling leveling off a bit?

A. We’re seeing things settle into a new normal. The new normal isn’t back to 100%. There isn’t that much happening in the food service environment, the restaurant environment and the eating-away-from-home environment. So the industry is having to produce more for people to eat within their own homes. They’re doing that by increasing the productivity of their lines. They’re also taking food service products or lines that were focused on food service and reorienting them more to in-home consumption. That’s true on both the food side and consumer packaged goods.

Q. What are you focusing on?

A. Keeping the facilities running. Enabling the workforce to get into the facilities and making sure the products get into the market.

Q. How could the federal government be more helpful?

A. When it comes to the workforce, we could still use greater assistance. When people test positive for COVID-19, we would like to see greater clarity from the federal government, particularly the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) on exactly what should be done. That’s why the industry is producing its own protocols that we would like to see manufacturing facilities abide by…. Another area is when it comes to personal protective equipment. A lot of the personal protective equipment is also necessary in manufacturing facilities.

Q. Is the number of workers calling out sick manageable?

A. There’s great confidence in the workforce and the number of people coming. Let’s not be pollyannaish. We will run into challenges. We’ll run into situations where a facility goes off-line for a period of time. What people should feel good about is when it comes to the production of our food, beverages and household products, it’s not like we have only one central place in the United States where it is done. It’s done everywhere.

Q. What about COVID-19 testing at the manufacturing facilities?

A. As you see these tests becoming more available and as you see the test times become instantaneous, I wouldn’t be surprised that’s something that our facilities are able to offer to their employees. It’s something that we’re in the process of asking our government for, which is prioritizing these locations for testing as a means of both identifying people at risk and getting confidence to those in the workforce.

Q. Any innovations?

A. What I’m seeing is a real focus on limiting the number of things they are producing and really honing in on the product that can keep the lines running as quickly as possible, whether that is a peanut butter company that’s reducing its focus on chunky. Now chunky is only going to come in one size, and that is what you get. What consumers are going to find in the next few months is that there’s plenty of food, plenty of consumer packaged products to be had. It may not be the variety you’re used to, every flavor you ever imagined, even the size you ever imagined.

Q. Shoppers seem to be returning to comfort food.

A. A lot of the concerns that people may have in good times seems to fly out the window in times like this. Whether that is organic, vegan or gluten-free, those concerns almost come across as luxuries at a time like this.

Q. Any long-lasting habits?

A. This is a unique time. I walk in the house and my 13-year-old son is baking. He wouldn’t bake in his life and all of sudden he’s baking. You are asking the $64,000 question. And that is the question that is being asked across the board. How do you time your production so you don’t have too much product left over? Right now, most of the focus is meeting the demand that’s out there.

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