5 ways COVID will change the food industry forever

Published date: December 7, 2020

Robot deliveries. Sanitising protocols. Contactless purchases. If you listen to the media, COVID’s impact on the food industry amounts to a few temporary bells and whistles. In reality? The changes are likely to be much deeper, more far-reaching, and permanent.

So what will the defining trends of the post-COVID era really be?

New habits will stick

Consumers have got in the habit of buying groceries online, with sales up a record 17% between April and July. Even hard-to-reach demographics are getting on board, with 10% of baby boomers saying they’ll keep buying more groceries online post-COVID, along with 40% of millennials and 34% of Gen Xers.

Consumer anxiety about sanitation and safety isn’t going away either, and sanitising every surface is likely to remain the “new normal”. Requirements like regular health checks could drive new technology adoption across the industry, in both customer-facing and behind-the-scenes processes.

Tech as an enabler

The COVID crisis has driven huge innovation, with technology enabling contactless interactions, including some that were struggling to break into the mainstream before, like virtual tipping or mobile ordering.

It’s clear the public is hungry for more innovation from food and beverage companies. Coca-Cola is launching a touchless soda fountain where drinks are poured via smartphones. Heineken’s doing equally impressive work behind the scenes, using virtual technology to upgrade machines at its Manchester factory to make eco-friendly cardboard multipack toppers instead of plastic.

AI will also be vital for risk management and forward planning for potential future waves of the pandemic.

Food safety will be revamped

While COVID is primarily airborne, not foodborne, people are still worried, with about 40% of consumers taking more care over washing their fruit and veg than they did pre-COVID.

The pandemic has caused rethinks in many areas of food production and consumption, like wet markets and eating meat from wild animals. Further changes to come could include more formal legislation for small and micro food businesses, which will particularly impact street vendors. We’re likely to see the rise of gourmet street food with impeccable hygiene standards.

Sustainability will be in the spotlight

COVID showed up serious flaws in the worldwide food supply chain, leading to fears of a “hunger pandemic” and a doubling of the numbers of people facing starvation.

The post-COVID rethink will need to go beyond safety into transparency and visibility across the supply chain, with consumers more likely to buy local and healthy than before.

Factory farming of animals and chemical-heavy monoculture farming of crops cause serious greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention providing a breeding ground for viruses in the case of animal farming, which was implicated in 2009’s outbreak of swine flu. Overdosing run-down animals with antibiotics increases the antibiotic resistance of viruses.

Consumers are catching on to this, with an American study finding nearly 25% of respondents were choosing more plant-based food (and anecdotally, the figure is likely to be higher in the UK). Food companies are bound to catch on and offer more plant-based and ethical options.

Dining will be different

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest-hit, but has adapted impressively, creating new delivery and takeout options that are likely to last well after the pandemic. However. there’s a problem – consumers have rediscovered the delights of cooking, with 35% saying they now enjoy it more than ever.

This means restaurants will have to branch out into cook-it-yourself kits or even home chef visits as alternatives to traditional restaurant dining.

Economic uncertainty tends to drive down demand for luxury, leading many restaurants to move downmarket, such as offering cut-price meal deals. Perhaps the most delightful example is the two-Michelin-star establishment in Denmark that’s found a new lease of life as a burger joint.