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FMI leader lays out 6 imperatives facing the food industry today

Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI -- The Food Industry Association -- lays out six imperatives facing the food industry today and how the association is working with members to address them with a big-picture outlook.

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After the pandemic forced years of shortened vision and focus on constantly changing issues within the food and other industries, it is now time for leaders to focus on bigger-picture issues facing the industry today, said FMI — The Food Industry Association — President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin in a State of the Industry video released by the association this week.

“Leaders know there’s a rhythm to running an operation,” Sarasin said. “There are times when we must seize the moment and take the risky jump in order to make a quantum advance and there are times when it’s best to give all our energy to the immediate problems at hand and proceed with extreme caution. … While our current circumstances have made it more difficult to think bigger, they haven’t diminished the need or the benefits of more expansive thinking.”

FMI President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin/FMI/YouTube

To that end, Sarasin explained, FMI has created a new strategic plan that focuses on six imperative issues the food industry is facing today: supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and workforce challenges, changing marketplace and societal dynamics, evolving consumer behaviors, rising ESG expectations and advancing technology transformation. The larger imperative running through them all, Sarasin said, is for leaders to begin to think bigger.

“I invite us to consider that it’s time for us to move beyond problem solving and maintenance with its focus on repair and fixing and dare to dream larger and explore alternative solutions and opportunities not yet envisioned,” Sarasin said. “We’re challenging ourselves to explore these six (imperatives) through a seventh imperative lens of a new world perspective. This means scrutinizing each area to identify the elements that are capable and worth trying to fix and also determining those requiring a whole new approach.

Supply chain disruption

“After years of the supply chain being a well-oiled, non-issue for the industry, it suddenly became a central concern,” Sarasin said. “No doubt COVID-19 revealed some cracks in the supply chain, exposing it to be far more vulnerable than we can imagine.” 

Those cracks were exacerbated by the Ukraine War, soaring fuel costs and severe weather events, Sarasin added.

“The sum total of these challenges has revealed that this problem is bigger than any one of us, requiring a consolidated effort,” Sarasin said. “Together, we must seek bigger-picture solutions that re-establish supply chain equilibrium, build more flexibility and agility into the system and help future-proof the food supply chain if we’re to restore consumer confidence in it.”

Labor shortages and workforce challenges

“Without a doubt, one of the most disruptive features of the pandemic has to be its impact on work attitudes,” Sarasin said. “Universally, it spawned fundamental questions about labor, like, ‘Why should I work?’ ‘Who do I want to work for?’ ‘Where do I want to work?’ ‘When do I want to work?’ and ‘How do I want to work?’ As laborers seek answers to these questions, the food industry remains short-handed, with an urgent need for frontline workers and the skilled laborers necessary for us to effectively go to market as we’d like to.”

As a result, Sarasin explained, the industry has been forced to adapt its employment models to better accommodate the needs of a new worker and build a future workplace that differs dramatically from the workplace in previous years. Through an initiative of the FMI Foundation, FMI has partnered with the national Junior Achievement organization to better address the recruitment needs on the front end of the employment spectrum by introducing high school juniors and seniors to careers in the grocery industry, Sarasin said. 

As technology is incorporated into nearly every aspect of food marketing, FMI is also working to help its members explore non-traditional labor options and attract and retain trained, skilled workers, Sarasin said.

Changing marketplace and societal dynamics

“The imperative issue of changing marketplace and societal dynamics encompasses an area in which we are often relegated to reacting to larger forces at work that are well beyond our control,” Sarasin said.

Issues related to inflation, input costs, labor policy, wages and e-commerce are challenging how the food industry manages its businesses, Sarasin said.

“As the purchasing agent for the consumer, retailers are often the advocate for the shopper and when we share your voice it reverberates with the concerns of the constituents of those elected to public office,” Sarasin said of FMI’s advocacy efforts in the nation’s capital. “Our job in conjunction with you is to frequently remind them of that fact.” 

Evolving consumer behaviors

“One of the few benefits that the pandemic bestowed upon us was a rediscovery of the joy of the home-cooked meal and a recovery of the benefits of families eating together,” Sarasin said, adding that research from FMI Foundation’s Family Meals Movement indicates that trend is continuing as today’s inflation-affected shoppers work to make stretch their food dollar as far as possible, however, at the same time, consumers are increasingly returning to pre-pandemic activities that are filling schedules. That shift, however, creates an opportunity for grocers, Sarasin explained.

“Making at-home dining as convenient, effortless and healthy as possible, simply must be a priority. … Consumers’ notion of convenience is expansive; it embraces the food itself and how it’s prepared, but it also includes ease of pickup and ready access to information about the food,” she said, adding that retailers must improve omni-channel shopping experiences, address consumer demand for environmentally friendly packaging and product transparency and hone in shoppers’ definition of convenience.

Rising ESG expectations

“Food retailers are often held to a higher value standard than other businesses,” Sarasin said. “Loyal shoppers want to trust that their food store, the company behind it and the larger industry share their concerns about the environment, social responsibility regarding food insecurity and hunger and progress towards diversity, equity and belonging goals.”

To reach those goals, Sarasin said, FMI’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging committee provides resources and supports members seeking racial justice in their companies and communities while the association’s ongoing participation in the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health addresses the industry’s commitment to reduce food waste, food insecurity and hunger and improve nutrition.

Advancing technology transformation

At the center of and connected to all of the imperatives is the final imperative: accelerating technology transformation.

“Technology will transform the food industry,” Sarasin said. “It will revise the financial structure of our society,  dramatically alter labeling requirements, eliminate redundancies in business practices and offer new forms of risk management.”

“Technology … can provide yet unconsidered solutions to our supply chain, help us address labor shortages, offer new information about changing societal dynamics, deliver algorithms that predict consumer behaviors before they even happen and produce efficiencies that will make us more sustainable, more responsible and more socially sensitive. … Our job will be to work diligently to ensure the gap between technology creation and technology utilization gets smaller and smaller.” 

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