Pan­demic has cans in de­mand

The boom for pro­cessed food is a boon for the mak­ers of con­tain­ers

Orlando Sentinel - - Business - By Neal E. Boudette

Restau­rants in down­town Han­ni­bal, Mis­souri, have been closed for weeks be­cause of the coro­n­avirus, but on the town’s west­ern out­skirts, its largest em­ployer is buzzing.

The Gen­eral Mills plant that turns out cans of Pro­gresso soup is still op­er­at­ing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It em­ploys 1,000 peo­ple and is hir­ing to fill dozens of open­ings.

“I drove by the other day, and the park­ing lot was full of cars, trucks com­ing and go­ing,” said James Hark, a man­ager of an auto body shop and mayor of Han­ni­bal.

The surge in de­mand for pro­cessed foods like canned soups and veg­eta­bles dur­ing the pan­demic has rip­pled through the food in­dus­try’s sup­ply chain. Mak­ers of metal con­tain­ers have had to speed up pro­duc­tion to keep pace.

Take Sil­gan Hold­ings, a maker of metal and plas­tic con­tain­ers for con­sumer goods with more than 50 plants across the coun­try. The com­pany, based in Stam­ford,

Con­necti­cut, re­ported record first-quar­ter earn­ings, in part be­cause of a jump in de­mand for cans.

Another big maker of food and bev­er­age cans, Crown Hold­ings, went into the year plan­ning to in­crease pro­duc­tion in the United States, and the virus has only added ur­gency to the ef­fort. Crown’s web­site lists 81 open pro­duc­tion jobs at its 25 U.S. plants, some for a third pro­duc­tion line be­ing set up at a fac­tory in Ni­chols, New York.

“We can sell ev­ery can we can make,” said Thomas Fis­cher, Crown’s vice pres­i­dent for in­vestor re­la­tions and cor­po­rate af­fairs.

Ac­quir­ing the metal hasn’t been a prob­lem. De­spite the tar­iffs the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion placed on im­ported steel and other met­als, steel prices have eased this year. More­over, re­cy­cling pro­vides can pro­duc­ers with a re­li­able source — about 71% of steel food con­tain­ers are re­cy­cled, ac­cord­ing to the Can Man­u­fac­tur­ers In­sti­tute, a trade group.

Smaller sup­pli­ers are busy as well. In Rolling Mead­ows, Illi­nois, near Chicago, Apex Tool Works makes the ma­chines and tools that pro­duce metal cans and lids.

“We are ac­tu­ally swamped,” said Mike Collins, pres­i­dent of Apex, the com­pany his fam­ily has run for 101 years. “The soup shelves are prac­ti­cally empty in the su­per­mar­kets, so our cus­tomers can’t make the stuff fast enough.”

Collins said that he would like to add to his staff of 42 but that work­ers with the re­quired ma­chine and met­al­work­ing skills were dif­fi­cult to come by. “It was like that even be­fore the virus,” he said.

In the four weeks that ended April 4, food sales at Gen­eral Mills and Camp­bell Soup rose more than 60%, and Kraft Heinz, Kel­logg, Flower Foods and oth­ers had jumps of 37% to 50%, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen, a provider of data on con­sumer pur­chas­ing.

“Al­most all our plants are run­ning at ca­pac­ity,” John Church, Gen­eral Mills’ chief sup­ply chain of­fi­cer, said in an in­ter­view. The com­pany has 25 plants in North Amer­ica.

To meet de­mand, Gen­eral Mills is in the un­usual po­si­tion of hir­ing dur­ing a pan­demic. A plant in Well­ston, Ohio — a town of fewer than 6,000 near the bor­der with West Vir­ginia — has a mix of en­try-level and mid­ca­reer jobs avail­able.

At some lo­ca­tions, Gen­eral Mills has re­cruited of­fice work­ers to help staff fac­to­ries now run­ning around the clock. Over­all, ab­sen­teeism hasn’t been a prob­lem, Church said.

Hav­ing con­fronted the virus in its plants in China, the com­pany be­gan screen­ing work­ers and san­i­tiz­ing plants in the United States early on to limit any spread of the virus in the work­place, he said.

TONY CENICOLA/THE NEW YORK TIMES

With large swaths of the coun­try un­der stay-at-home or­ders due to the coro­n­avirus, com­pa­nies that make metal cans are boom­ing.

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