'It's business as usual with extra tension': Plant protein suppliers work to keep factories open

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/LoveTheWind
© GettyImages/LoveTheWind

Related tags plant-based Soy Pea protein plant protein coronavirus

Plant protein suppliers such as Cosucra, Cargill and Roquette are working to keep factories open and customer orders fulfilled - but when it comes to shipping logistics, consumer demand and NPD, uncertainty is still the watchword.

The COVID-19 outbreak and nationwide lockdowns around the world have put a strain on the global food industry.

The US government has classified the food and agriculture sectors - made up of around 2.1 million farms, 935,000 restaurants, and more than 200,000 food manufacturing, processing, and storage facilities - as essential infrastructure and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it is working to ensure resources and safety are prioritized.

Food producers have had to deal with major disruptions but are keen to stress that supplies are stable.

According to the United Soy Board, for instance, the US soybean industry is operating at near full capacity while soy processors have been crushing “record amounts”​ in recent months to supply strong domestic demand and exports.

US farmers are expected to plant more soy this season compared to last year when wet weather prevented planting and soybean stocks are forecast to be 11.56 million metric tons in summer this year, according to USDA figures.

While certain fruit and vegetables rely on seasonal migrant workers to pick and process the crops– workers who are no longer available due to lockdown measures and border closures – the harvest of plant protein crops such as soy, pea and wheat tends to be mechanized.

Keeping workers safe

Food giant Cargill does not publicize figures for the volume of soy it works with but its soy footprint covers sourcing, processing, and trading. It also produces pea protein through a joint venture with PURIS.

Speaking about the company's operations in general, Matt Parsons, operations director for Cargill North America, said it has been working closely with suppliers and customers and has experienced limited disruptions in its supply chain to date.

Where possible, it has opted to have employees work from home in order to limit contact and potential spread of the virus.

“However, our plant facility teams cannot work from home and still deliver the food the world needs,” ​Parsons said. “That is why we have adopted additional health and safety protocols for employees at major production facilities.”

These include enhanced sanitizing procedures, prohibiting visitors from its facilities, adopting social distancing and offering shift flexibility to keep its major production facilities open.

Despite these additional measures, the food giant has had to announce closures at several meat plants in North America, according to Reuters, such as its meatpacking factory in Hazleton, Pennsylvania where around 900 workers are employed.

The company confirmed to FoodNavigator-USA it has had no North American soy plant closures or disruptions in operations. 

Roquette’s R&D plant produces alcohol

French pea protein supplier Roquette has also put in place home working where possible, restricted factory access to essential staff only and distributed personal protective equipment for workers.

Roquette said disruption to its business has been minimal. Its plant in Vic-sur-Aisne, France is currently operating at full capacity while construction work at its future processing facility in Manitoba, Canada​, set to be the biggest pea processing plant in the world, is on-going and on schedule to start production the end of 2020.

In response to the crisis, it has transformed its R&D pilot production lines to produce hydro-alcohol solutions.

“Our aim is to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and to help the healthcare workers in the front line. Roquette plans to offer about 5,000 liters of hydro-alcoholic disinfectant solution free of charge per week,” ​a spokesperson for the company said.

Cosucra: 'It's business as usual with extra tension'

Belgian pea protein and chicory fiber supplier Cosucra told us its production facilities in Belgium have been declared an essential service by the Belgian government and it is allowed to continue operating with added safety provisions.

Frank Truong, general manager of Cosucra North America, described the situation as “business as usual with extra tension”.

“We are producing to the global forecast we receive on a monthly basis,” ​he said. “Now the accuracy of that forecast is becoming even more important for both supply and end-customer demand. We sell products in 45 plus countries so understanding what’s happening with the sales channel and how that’s impacting the end customer is essential.”

Cosucra sources its yellow peas from farmers in France and Belgium. The harvest season, which lasts from April to July, is currently getting underway but Truong said Cosucra has enough inventory to meet forecast demand for the next 12 months. The logistics of shipping the final product to customers, however, is more uncertain.

“The time it takes to receive an order and [arrange] an ocean container is one week - that’s been our historical track record – but with COVID-19 as the weeks go by that may change.”

New product development is happening in scientists' homes

The bulk of Cosucra’s customers are food and drink manufacturers and so it has been spared the impact of plummeting foodservice sales.

“We have not seen any impact as of today regarding demand, [our customers] have good brands with good consumer demand. Having said that, there are product launches that were planned for spring this year and obviously some have been delayed,” ​Truong said.

“Foodservice or retailer customers are not taking phone calls on NPD at the minute so we’re just standing by with our CPG customers to see when the retailers will start to talk again about selling new products​.”

When manufacturers want to continue product development, Cosucra has adapted to the new circumstances. Its technicians work in the lab respecting social distancing measures while its food scientists are working from home.

“For some of our global customers, the lab technicians will do pilot plant trials and then ship the product to our food scientists at home to do the sensory tests,” ​Truong told FoodNavigator-USA.

“The food scientists will then make any modifications for the next round of pilot plant trials. That’s how we are doing R&D today here in North America and Belgium.”

Impact on consumer demand

According to the latest Nielsen data​, retail sales of both meat and plant-based meat alternatives in the US increased significantly in March this year compared to the same period last year.

However, with analysts predicting a global economic downturn not seen since the Wall Street crash of 1929, will packaged plant-based foods, which tend to have a premium positioning and a price tag to match, maintain their growth?

“Consumers recognize the importance of plant-based nutrition for sustainability,” ​Truong said. “The reasons why we’re having this global pandemic [show] why plant-based nutrition is so important.

“Having said that, the longer economic downturn may impact the growth of plant-based products going forward. The fundamental consumer demand will still be there but the growth rate – that’s the unknown,” ​he added. “It’s just a question of how long the economic impact lasts and what the impact on consumers’ repeat purchases is.”

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