What COVID-19 Taught Us About the Food Manufacturing Industry

The food manufacturing industry was hit hard by the effects of COVID-19. Demand for food didn’t change in any statistically significant way over the course of the pandemic, yet many manufacturers had to completely reinvent how they understood their business. As Americans emerge from quarantine restrictions and return to “life as before” savvy manufacturers are taking the lessons they learned from coronavirus to get a head start on a radically changing industry.

What lessons have we learned from the pandemic, and how can we apply them to our business at large? Below, we provide an industry snapshot as it exists today, give examples of trends that were accelerated by COVID-19, and where we see manufacturing going from here.

The Food Manufacturing Industry Today

As many Americans feel safe enough to return to work, labor shortages have hit the food manufacturing industry hard. While some have attributed this to generous unemployment benefits, this exact pattern was also visible during the Great Recession. At the time, food manufacturing laborers were let go at the beginning, and did not return after it had ended.

The two motivating factors that led to the exodus of workers from food manufacturing were health and childcare concerns. To win workers back, some manufacturers have opted for higher paying jobs, more enticing benefits, and more flexible hours.

In short, Americans are becoming choosier about the jobs they take as they adapt to a new normal. Hiring has been an issue in manufacturing for decades – the pandemic only heightened what had already become a trend. More specific changes in the industry happened on the factory floor.

Trends Accelerated in the Food Manufacturing Industry by the Pandemic


The beginning of the pandemic illustrated what consumer habits look like under pressure: hoarding. As millions of Americans prepared to hunker down at the beginning of the pandemic, many families stocked their pantries with all the supplies they needed to weather isolation at home. Most notably, this led to massive shortages in toilet paper.

The spike in consumer habits didn’t mean that more goods were being consumed, but nonetheless challenged manufacturers of all stripes. For instance, manufacturers who rely on a lean “just-in-time” inventory struggled to keep pace and were forced to adapt to the surges that occurred.

Demand for goods has largely leveled off since the early days of the pandemic, but it taught many a critical lesson: agility. Manufacturers had to quickly pivot to meet changing needs in an industry where demand largely remains static.


Food manufacturing, particularly meat processing, depends on workers to be in close contact with each other to meet goals and deadlines. With food manufacturing being an essential business, these businesses did not shut down while much of the country did.

These businesses were also hotspots in the early pandemic. Some major manufacturers are still seeing backlash for failing to properly respond to these issues, resulting in expensive lawsuits based on negligence.

Protective barriers were likely a once-in-a-lifetime trend that we will not see again. Health and safety protocols, particularly those around hygiene, may be here to stay. A recall on food can be devastating to a manufacturer’s bottom line – new strategies maintained on the assembly line can help ensure that harmful microbes and bacteria do not present a threat to consumers.

Is Automation the Future of the Food Manufacturing Industry?

Virtually all the trends that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic point towards a solution that has been looming over the food manufacturing industry for years: the inevitability of automation. If there is one all-encompassing solution to issues of demand, safety, and hiring practices, it boils down to the fact that automation is no longer just an option, but a necessity.

The drawback? Cost. Food manufacturing companies are often strapped for cash, and the ability to completely automate a workforce is out of scope for many smaller manufacturers.

Thankfully, businesses like Custom Cut Metals have begun adopting the latest technology at a price point these smaller manufacturers can afford. We don’t believe that affordability must come at the cost of quality and efficiency.

As large food manufacturers swiftly adopt automation, smaller businesses must choose their strategy with care. Automation provides a higher volume of production and increased safety both to workers and to consumers. Finding a partner with customized solutions for your production line has never been more important.

Contact us today for more information about our offerings and services.