While the negative consequences of the Covid-19 crisis are clear, times of extreme uncertainty can also be windows of opportunity, if juxtaposed with innovation. However, in leadership positions, the question remains – What is the best overall business strategy in a crisis like this?
In today’s scenario, when not everything about the Covid-19 virus outcomes can be known, the webinar organized by the Reed-PackPlus on 22 May 2020 addressed the critical areas. Possible consumer trends like food safety, contamination risks, eCommerce, and industry concerns such as sustainability, automation, and packaging innovation were a part of the lively discussion.
Automation – the need of the hour
During this pandemic, many manufacturers see automation as the road ahead if they have to prevent shutdowns. Dr Ashok Tyagi, executive director of Haldiram, explained, “In the pre-Covid -19 times, there was not as much need for automation as it is now. Automation has some initial cost involved, but it has long term benefits. Therefore, small players should also go for full or semi-automation as per their capacity to ensure minimal human intervention during food production.”
According to Tyagi, Haldiram has followed stringent food safety practices for years. He said, “Seeing the current pandemic situation, we have re-engineered and re-designed our packaging plants to ensure social distancing. As an extension to Covid-19, we have been providing masks to everyone in the work area and ensuring good hygiene practices for food safety.”
Tyagi also talked about modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), which extends the shelf life of food products. He suggested that while Haldiram’s export packaging has a shelf life of as much as two or three months, the use of MAP technology could be expanded in the domestic market.
Contamination risk assessment
Every food industry should have food safety management systems (FSMS) to manage food safety risks and prevent contamination. Food industry FSMS are underpinned by all the primary conditions and activities necessary to maintain a hygienic food processing environment. Barun Banerjee, head of packaging Nestle India, assured, “The packaging materials at Nestle are thoroughly tested to ensure that nothing has been compromised and the risk assessment of every process ensures food safety.”
However, he addressed some initial challenges in packaging material arrivals due to fewer truck movements, later resolved by the authorities as they enabled supply chains. “Post Covid-19, companies will adopt automation to ensure social distancing and hygiene practices,” Banerjee agreed.
Ramesh Ramachandran, associate director, Food packaging sustainability at PepsiCo, spoke about the consumers’ perspective in terms of food safety. “Due to the pandemic, awareness about hygiene has increased. Food safety has further intensified because of Covid-19. Now the concern is, does the packaging add an increased risk of contamination to the food.” He suggested that there a trend to touch-less packaging, and transactions may come about in the future.
Sustainability vs safety
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most companies are hyper-focused on employee safety and the economy. There has been a momentary shift from sustainability to food safety and health. However, many industries are innovating and keeping the momentum high around sustainable packaging.
SN Venkataraman, vice president marketing of ITC PSPD, believes that post-Covid-19, consumers will retain their social consciousness and change their attitude towards the betterment of the environment. On the other hand, Ramachandran suggested, “There will be temporarily headwinds on sustainability as it would now not be the immediate thought provoker for the consumer. Food safety and health will occupy that place, at least momentarily.”
Commenting on sustainability while considering the economic scenario, Akshay Kanoria, executive director, TCPL Packaging, said, “As far as the sustainability is concerned, there is going to be a significant amount of up-charge on most of the products for the initial few years before it becomes the mainstream.” However, he feels that consumers in developed countries are more inclined towards sustainability than India due to a lack of awareness.
On the regulatory front, Harish Kumar, assistant director, and FSSAI placed some light on the packaging regulations (notified in July 2019), saying that the regulatory authority is more deeply working on sustainability. Significantly, he also stated that the FSSAI is re-looking the standards for recycled PET or other plastics compatibility with food product packaging. Kumar mentioned a new scientific panel called Nescopan led by the Indian Institute of Packaging in Mumbai for helping develop the packaging standards.
New normal brings opportunities for innovation
The Covid-19 pandemic has spurred a fresh spurt of growth in the food retail and eCommerce sector. The demand for more packaging has again swung high after having been pushed down by consumers’ sustainability priorities. Companies are looking at this new normal as an opportunity to innovate solutions to fight this pandemic.
ITC’s Venkataraman said that the pandemic has once again made disposable and single-use paper cups more attractive. Thus techniques to add moisture barriers to paper for such applications are increasingly being developed and adopted. Commenting on innovation, Kanoria said, “TCPL is working on changing aesthetics of the brand. On the one hand, by replacing plastics with paperboard-based alternatives. And on the other hand, since TCPL is in flexible packaging as well as monocartons, by working on, mono polymer materials such as PE films that can replace multilayer poly-laminates.”
According to Tyagi, Halidram is working on Modified Atmosphere Packaging to increase the shelf life of sweets and developing solutions for pre-packaging of sweets to maintain social distancing at their restaurants. To date, the company has used automation for its Namkeen or snacks manufacturing plant and is now aiming to automate and semi-automate in the sweet plant.
“Post Covid-19, convenience, in-home consumption, avoiding wastage within the package, cloud kitchens, eCommerce packaging, and mega packaging are going to be some of the key trends,” Banerjee concluded.