Pandemic has cans in demand
The boom for processed food is a boon for the makers of containers
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.
With large swaths of the country under stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus, companies that make metal cans are booming.