Boom in Canned Food Means a Boom in Cans, Too

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

The big General Mills plant that turns out cans of Progresso soup is still operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just as it was before the virus hit. It employs 1,000 people and is hiring to fill 50 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 the mayor of Hannibal, the boyhood home of Mark Twain.

Someone has to make all those cans. 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, Conn., reported record first-quarter earnings, in part because of a jump in demand for cans.

In a conference call, Silgan’s chief executive, Anthony J. Allott, said the company expected demand for canned goods to remain strong for some time since many people would continue to eat and entertain at home in the months ahead.

“Our order books are full,” he said.

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, N.Y.

“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 percent of steel food containers are recycled, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute, a trade group.

Smaller suppliers are busy as well. In Rolling Meadows, Ill., about 25 miles northwest of 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, and they’re running through their tooling very quickly.”

Mr. 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, so we haven’t hired in a while,” he said.

The food business is normally steady. But the surge in sales of canned and other packaged foods, when other transportation companies and vegetable producers have been knocked off stride by the virus, has forced manufacturers into a state of high alert.

In the four weeks that ended April 4, food sales at General Mills and Campbell Soup rose more than 60 percent, and Kraft Heinz, Kellogg, Flower Foods and others had jumps of 37 percent to 50 percent, 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.

For years, sales of soups and other canned foods have been declining slowly, as Americans gravitated toward fresh produce and other options often seen as more nutritious. In 2017, General Mills closed a large Progresso soup plant in Vineland, N.J., and consolidated production of that product line in Hannibal.

But lockdown orders have made shoppers cut down on trips to the supermarket and stock up on long-lasting items. The food industry has a name for this type of consumer behavior — “pantry-loading.”

Jim Parr, a teacher in Framingham, Mass., is an example. Ordinarily, he said, if he buys a can of beans and a can of diced tomatoes to make chili, it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision while shopping. But recently, he stocked up.

“I got enough to last two weeks,” he said. “I can’t just drive out at any time to go to the store. The way it is now, you have to think ahead more.”

To meet demand, General Mills is in the unusual position of hiring during a pandemic, and not just in Hannibal. A plant in Wellston, Ohio — a town of fewer than 6,000 people — has 30 openings, a mix of entry-level and midcareer jobs.

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

Like General Mills, Campbell Soup has had a jump in demand for canned products. It has increased pay for production workers by $2 an hour to help its employees juggling work hours with new challenges of child care and stay-at-home orders.

General Mills has also set up a control center where executives can monitor operations hour by hour.

“We used to meet monthly to look at demand coming and where we are,” said Mr. Church, the supply chain officer. “Now we have that meeting every day, to consider all the factors in our supply chain and optimize the day because we’re using a lot more carrots, a lot more chicken.”

For now, the company has not run short of food ingredients, in part because demand from restaurants and other large food-service businesses has fallen as sales of packaged food have jumped, he said.

As a food producer, the company operates a highly sanitized workplace to begin with. But it is now cleaning its factories more frequently and has workers taking breaks in their cars or in conference rooms to maintain distance from one another. In its cafeterias, the rule is now only one chair per table.

At Apex, the tool maker in Illinois, Mr. Collins said the new realities of the workplace were adding stress. “You feel it with the unknown,” he said.

At his company, though, the arrival of spring weather has helped. “When we have a nice day, we open up the building to get the fresh air flowing,” Mr. Collins said. “That makes things a little more pleasant.”

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