Time to reinforce the good news about canned foods

With coronavirus impacting every continent – by early May there had been 3.6 million confirmed cases of which 1.2m had recovered, and 250,000 deaths worldwide – the nature of this plague gives the impression that there will be a long tail until the virus is beaten.

Coronavirus is a reminder of how vulnerable we really are, and how we must be better prepared in future. Advice from governments has been to stay at home, with non-essential businesses closed, meaning that people are faced either with no work, are on furlough, or are working from home.

Unprecedented economic measures by nations, the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve mean that we are now on a coronavirus war footing. With GDP down by 10 per cent, the most optimistic scenario is a deep recession followed by a temporary quick ‘V’ recovery once the virus is beaten, if consumer demand is not broken.

Other scenarios are a more drawn out ‘U’ recovery, and worst case a second wave or ‘W’ curve.

Stock markets worldwide have dropped by 20 per cent, and most businesses have been affected. With lockdowns in Europe, consumers found shops short of stock, but quickly replenished with items like canned seafood, tomatoes and vegetables.

Metal packaging should be relatively insulated from a downturn in the economy as consumers turn to canned food while obliged to stay at home. But there is a threat in the longer term to supply chains in raw material production as governments classify non-essential activity and factory workers start catching coronavirus.

My estimate is that the value of the global canned food market is $17 billion, or almost a third of the total market for cans. It’s a market that’s been flat to slightly down in recent years, which is as much to do with more fresh produce being sold or bad weather, as with take up by alternative packaging.

Cans have a high share of the pack mix in traditional sectors such as seafood and vegetables, and increasingly in pet food. There is plenty of advice for consumers about the benefits of canned foods. Canned Food UK, the Can Manufacturers Institute in the US and UPPIA in France have all been running campaigns that focus on the long ambient shelf life of canned foods, their great value and that they’re the obvious choice in times of crisis.

Harder to convey is the message that there is no shortage of food and that consumers should make intelligent decisions about their purchases, rather than resorting to panic buying. Guidance has been offered by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization about not putting the supply under strain during the coronavirus pandemic.

Readers of The Canmaker will know the benefits of canned food: it doesn’t need a cold chain, has a shelf life of up to five years, and the empty can is widely recycled. No additives are needed in the canning process and the nutritional content of the products is almost undiminished throughout its packaged life, often more so than fresh produce, according to McCance and Widdowson’s Composition of Food, 7th Edition.

Yet many consumers still think that canned food is loaded with preservatives, which is of course not so. Within 24 hours of harvesting, fruit and vegetables are canned, the sterilising process locking in the vitamins and nutrients. In contrast, fresh produce starts deteriorating as soon as it is picked, and the volume of waste is higher as it is sold within 24 days or so.

Now more than ever is the time to reinforce these messages. Could it be that with the leading canned food producers – Thai Union, Campbell Soup, Conserve Italia and Grupo Calvo, for example – enjoying higher sales in the first quarter, the revival is already happening?