One of the unforeseen consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the large increase in demand for fresh fruit and vegetables. This means that some potato fresh packers are now busier than ever, but not without a couple of challenges. The first is the pressure on packing lines to achieve greater throughputs without compromising product quality. The second is the need for more workers at a time when manual labor is especially scarce.
This unusual mix of opportunities and challenges was stirred-up when lockdown restrictions forced foodservice outlets to shut down. Millions of hungry consumers, prevented from eating out, suddenly increased the frequency with which they cooked at home, sending fresh potato sales into orbit. The scale and speed of this rise in demand was breath-taking. In a seven-day period when the coronavirus crisis had just started, the dollar-value of potato sales at multiple-outlet supermarkets across the USA rose by 72% – then kept on rising, week after week, by anything from 65% to 115%. At the same time, fresh potato sales in Europe also skyrocketed. Even now, several months later, fresh potato sales are above 2019 levels in many nations by about 40%.
Packers have struggled to keep up. This is understandable, but also unfortunate: when big potato retailers find that their regular suppliers can’t cope with orders, they look elsewhere for help, and business that gets steered away doesn’t always come back. Equally troubling is the fact that many fresh packers are unable to take advantage of these golden opportunities to acquire additional work. They simply don’t have the necessary operational systems, line technologies, or people power that’s demanded.
People power is especially difficult to crank-up. Manual laborers in developed nations prefer permanent employment to seasonal contracts, and laborers in developing nations can increasingly choose from more desirable alternatives. Packing businesses have been circumnavigating this problem by relying on temporary foreign workers, but now that so many nations have imposed pandemic-related travel restrictions, this flow of labor has also dried up. It’s no secret that it will get tougher every year to find people willing to do pack-line work.
Another labor-related challenge is that people are in fear of catching COVID-19 at work, which has been fueled by media coverage of COVID-19 outbreaks at many American and European food processing plants. This is awkward for pack lines which rely solely on having people working in close proximity to each other for the removal of poor-quality potatoes. What’s more, the need for screening and personal protective equipment will add to already-rising labor costs.
These challenges can be solved, however, by readily-available technologies. Today’s optical sorting machines have the proven ability to increase line throughputs and productivity while simultaneously ensuring food safety and consistent product quality. The ability, also, to automate tasks which reduce, and can substantially diminish dependency on manual labor. Such advantages are not only crucial at the moment, while the coronavirus crisis disrupts food-buying habits, but will also be commercially valuable far into the future, long after the invisible threat of COVID-19 has been made more manageable or eradicated.