The Center for Food Integrity experts say market recovery will come in fits and starts

By: Susan Wallace, Center for Food Integrity

As the nation slowly emerges from COVID-19 restrictions, demand for food products is expected to increase. It won’t be a smooth ride to recovery, warns Susan Schwallie, a member of the Center for Food Integrity’s Consumer Trust Insights Council.

“I’m calling this the restart roller coaster,” she said during a recent CFI NOW webcast. Schwallie is the executive director of food and beverage consumption for the NPD Group, a market research and consumer insights company.

She and other members of CFI’s Trust Insights Council have shared weekly updates through a Friday webcast by The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). Michigan Milk Producers Association is a member of CFI, a non-profit organization which works to build trust in today’s food system.

The weekly webcast has tracked the impact of COVID-19 on consumer food trends. The unprecedented circumstances have caused disruption, but there are signs that demand is starting to recover. The greatest challenge now for the food system is the closure of meat packing plants because of workers infected with COVID-19.

“We now know there’s going to be a lot of hurt for the livestock industry and some drastic measures to be taken there as the supply chain continues to be challenged,” Schwallie said.

As stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, demand will increase, but with wide variations in state and local rules, expect a patchwork recovery.

“There’s fits and starts going on,” Schwallie said. “There’s a couple of states that are reopening but expect this to be a roller coaster. Openings will be up and down and restrictions will be different in every state.”

The Center for Food Integrity has hosted weekly webcasts with speakers like Charlie Arnot (top left), Ujwal Arkalgud (top right) and Susan Schwallie (bottom) through the COVID-19 crisis.

She pointed to recent information from China, which is emerging from COVID-19 restrictions, that shows that the first sectors of the food system to show significant improvement were in beverage and coffee shop sales. She said this was likely because as people are returning to their routine, which may include stopping for a beverage or snack. Getting a cup of coffee would also be perceived as lower risk than eating at a restaurant.

As shoppers have stopped stockpiling food, some degree of normalcy has returned to stores shelves. Some changes, however, are expected to be more long-lasting. Online ordering of groceries and restaurant meals has increased significantly and the fastest growing group of those ordering online is customers age 75 and above, Schwallie said, and many can be expected to continue to do so.

“Americans are really thinking about what’s essential and what’s necessary,” she said.

New knowledge leads to new behavior, said Ujwal Arkalgud, a cultural anthropologist and member of CFI’s Consumer Trust Council. During the CFI NOW webcast, he reports he is seeing at least two new behaviors emerging from the crisis. One is that consumers are very interested in foods that can boost their immunity. The other is greater awareness of gut health and connecting the dots between food, immunity and gut health.

Because of the disruption caused by COVID-19, Arkalgud sees opportunity for the food system. Consumers will be very interested in labeling and considering what foods they can trust.

“In terms of the food system, the biggest thing we’re seeing is things that are related to health and well-being are being brought back into focus. We actually think there’s a lot of innovation opportunity, but it’s going to have to come at an economic price given the economic environment,” he said.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of the Milk MessengerSubscribe »