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The top 10 food-related stories of 2020

2020 was an unusual year with no shortage of stories. Some flew under the radar because of the pandemic, but this list is based on how some food-related stories will probably have long-term implications, whether they were related to COVID-19 or not.

10: The apparent end of Tim Hortons’ identity crisis. The iconic Canadian chain had lost its bearings in recent years, but 2020 may have been the first year of a turnaround story. In March, president Alex Macedo left the company mostly unnoticed. For years, the chain's marketing and product development groups were simply out of touch with what was happening out in the field and in stores, but that changed this year. Should be interesting to see how things unfold in a hopefully calmer 2021.

9: Singapore became the first country to allow lab-grown meat to be commercialized. This may seem like a far-fetched idea right now, but it's likely a matter of time before these products come to Canada. How these products will be regulated is still a mystery, but the cost to produce synthetic meat in labs is probably lower than doing it conventionally and without the slaughter and the massive environmental footprint. This is going to pose a challenge for the livestock industry.

8: Hero pay. Grocers increasing wages only to cancel programs in June, pointed to how ill-designed the hero pay programs were. Canadians came to realize that essential jobs in the food sector are occupied by under-appreciated, under-paid personnel. But food retailing is all about high volumes of sales with very low margins. A 10% salary-base increase will make many stores unprofitable. Recognizing the hard work of front-line employees is critical, but it can't be done permanently with current business models. Sobeys, Walmart, and other chains have opted to issue “lockdown bonuses,” which was the appropriate language to use. A good comeback.

7: The apparent divorce between McDonald’s and Beyond Meat. While McDonald’s recently announced its new McPlant products to be rolled out in 2021, Beyond Meat, who was working with the fast-food chain for awhile, was not even mentioned in the release. Beyond Meat essentially learned the hard way that its “better than beef” rhetoric makes the company a liability. And McDonald’s made that crystal-clear this year.

6: The sudden rise of e-commerce in the food industry. Online shopping has made the entire supply chain more democratic and accessible to consumers. Everyone can sell to consumers now including farmers, processors and farmers’ markets. In 2020, we have seen the food industry commit more than $12 billion over five years to support online strategies. When the year started, barely 1.7% of food sales in Canada were conducted online. By the end of 2020 that number will have more than doubled, and almost half of Canadians intend to buy food online regularly after the pandemic.

5: The collapse of the food service industry. We started the year spending approximately 36% of our food budget on food consumed outside the home. In April, in the midst of a lockdown, it dropped to 9%. By mid-summer, it likely went back up to about 25% or 26%. But most restaurant operators are realistic--it will not go back up to 36% anytime soon.

4: Farmgate waste. Because of disruptions created by the pandemic, millions of litres of milk were dumped, millions of perfectly healthy farm animals were euthanized across the country, and lettuce and mushrooms disposed of--the waste was unbearable and incomprehensible. Most Canadians were confused and had no idea what to think of the waste. Farmers weren't to blame, but our lack of focus on processing as a country was. As the social contract between the food industry and consumers is being redesigned in the wake of COVID, farmers will need to be ready.

3: Telecommuting, cooking, gardening and how we became more domesticated. Getting people to stay home created a tsunami of changes. Working from home, paired with restaurant closures, got us closer to our own kitchen, which in turn changed our relationship with food. Most of us cooked and nearly 20% of Canadians started a garden this year. Only time will tell if our new habits stick.

2: Black Lives Matter spurs marketing changes. Amid the massive Black Lives Matter movement ignited by George Floyd’s death, PepsiCo opted to change the name and brand image of its Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup. Other food companies followed suit during the summer. As in many other sectors, food marketing clearly ended a racist-charged chapter in 2020 and how food will be marketed will change.

1: Panic buying. The sudden and unnecessary hauling of food during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring is an easy pick for the top spot. Beyond the ridiculousness of toilet paper hoarding, the impact of empty shelves was immense. Many Canadians would have experienced the emotions of food insecurity for the first time. Since then, behaviours and even policy have been impacted by the powerful images of bare grocery store shelves. Truly a moment in time.


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