Josh Sosland PortraitEach January, this publication presents as the first editorial of the year an “annual report” for our readers about the business of Sosland Publishing Company. To close out this year, it seems appropriate to offer high-level comments on the extraordinary experiences of the industries covered by SPC publications, shared by the magazines’ editors.

What’s most interesting is the remarkable variability within the food sector in how the pandemic shaped the course of the year now ending. For Milling & Baking News, the disparity of fortunes between bakers dedicated to serving supermarkets and other retail outlets and bakers whose principal customers are foodservice outlets has been reported throughout the year. This divide has resulted in an overall year-to-year change in wheat flour production that has not been unusually wide, up 1.3%. Still, the year was characterized by unusual surges and lulls in flour demand and featured a previously unimaginable jump in family flour sales.

COVID-19 brought numerous unintended consequences to wholesale baking companies covered in 2020 by Baking & Snack. In several instances, the pandemic was costly or disruptive to operations, but there were pluses experienced by bakers, too. For instance, the longer runs and reduced number of stock-keeping units proved a boost for sustainability and operating efficiency. Equipment suppliers in many cases were shut out of anticipated projects by baking companies anxious to minimize the spread of the virus. Capital expenditure budgets are expected to grow considerably in 2021.

Caught in the crosshairs of COVID-19 were the processing plants at the heart of the sector covered by Meat+Poultry. The pandemic dealt a crippling blow to leading processors during the first half of the year, with outbreaks at plants interrupting the flow of raw materials to the facilities and the distribution of the products from the plants. Investments by processors to adjust operations to accommodate surging demand and keep workers safe were estimated to have totaled $1.5 billion by the end of June. In the months that followed,
production returned to near pre-pandemic levels, but with coronavirus cases spiking in December, production problems worsened once again.

In the retail baking industry covered by bake, independent retail bakeries scrambled to ensure their signature baked products were available online, either through instore pickup or delivery. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic was credited with accelerating efforts by retail bakeries to develop innovative products for American consumers hungry for unique but convenient culinary experiences.

Wildly varied were the effects of COVID-19 on grocery departments tracked by Supermarket Perimeter. In the case of meat, sales surged when consumers stocked up on necessities and comfort foods. Others, such as instore delis and bakeries, suffered in product categories that are more “hands-on,” like salad bars and self-serve donut cases.

The pet food sector generated growth in 2020. An informal poll on the website of Pet Food Processing generated 1,009 responses, nearly all of which said the pandemic helped boost production. Value-added products such as wet pet foods and treats enjoyed particularly strong growth.

Global agricultural trade developments covered by World Grain were dramatic in 2020, though forces like inclement weather, ongoing trade tensions and the recovery of China’s livestock sector factored more prominently in market swings than COVID-19. The return of China as a major buyer of US agricultural commodities helped reaffirm the centrality of that market to the prosperity of the US farm economy.

Most of the food companies falling under the umbrella of Food Business News enjoyed strong sales during 2020, in some cases revitalizing businesses that had struggled chronically for years. Still, to the publication’s editor, 2020 will be known as the year the food and beverage industry embraced digital marketplaces. Ghost kitchens proliferated, and DoorDash’s initial public offering demonstrated the market’s optimism that post-pandemic consumers will continue to embrace delivery and the trend of “eating out” at home.