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Rich Zeoli is a popular morning radio talk show host in Philadelphia. On Saturday morning, he tweeted out a photo of nearly empty canned soup shelves at his southern New Jersey grocery store. It was something I thought I’d never see again – depleted soup shelves.
Amidst the fears that were spread this week about Coronavirus (COVID-19), including governments shutting down schools, public parks, and demands for the closure of “non-essential” businesses – even state-owned liquor stores here in Pennsylvania — Americans flooded neighborhood retail food shops to stockpile whatever would fit in their grocery carts. The dusty, sometimes-forgotten “center store,” where the shelf-stable “processed” foods have sometimes languished was rediscovered.
And it’s about time.
During my two decades in the food industry, I witnessed the slow but unmistakable long-term decline of canned food consumption. So-called “food journalists” and trendy bloggers urged Americans to ditch “processed” foods. The Organic industry, with a lot of help from Congress and the Clinton Administration, advocated, created and launched a taxpayer-funded Organic certification program, complete with a National Organic Standards Board. With the government’s imprimatur, over time, it became de rigueur to embrace fresh, minimally processed, and locally grown foods. Witness the explosion of “farm to table” restaurants and the meteoric growth of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, among others. No shortage of so-called “foodies,” like the blogger “Food Babe,” made sport of promoting fresh over processed products, even creating food scares (“bromated vegetable oil is a fire retardant!” she screamed, but I guess water is OK) about ingredients and growing methods.
As a result, frozen and especially canned foods became increasingly unfashionable. The industry’s inability to stem the tide with effective marketing programs and more attractive labeling – even with the Food and Drug Administration declaring that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables were just as nutritious as fresh – allowed misperceptions about the safety, nutrition, and value of such foods to gain traction. Sales began their inexorable slide, with occasional upticks during economic recessions or natural disasters.
Then here comes Coronavirus.
Hunkering down and preparing to work or school from home (if they can) with all favorite activities canceled, Americans are restocking their pantries. Canned and frozen foods have been rediscovered. Companies like Campbell Soup, General Mills, and ConAgra have ramped up production to meet this new-found demand. Food makers and retailers are struggling to keep their shelves stocked and supply chains are working overtime.
This is good news. Americans can rest assured that these packaged foods are not only safe but nutritious and able to last up to two years with no degradation in quality or safety. Cans and other forms of rigid packaging are recyclable. And most manufacturers, especially of multi-ingredient products (like soup or frozen lasagna), employ outstanding chefs who are always working to make their foods tasty and nutritious, with “cleaner” labels (fewer if any ingredients whose names you can’t pronounce). Campbell Soup’s “Well, YES” soups fit that trend perfectly. Canned other packaged foods are among the easiest to prepare and among the safety elements of the food supply. They are also more affordable and, in some cases, more nutritious than those slowing oxidizing fresh veggies and fruits sitting in your fridge.
Can makers also improved their products by replacing epoxy linings that protect food from the metal cans. Newer cans no longer contain trace amounts of bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disrupter, and have been replaced with new linings that are “BPA free.” Everything in a package that touches food must be evaluated and approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a “food contact substance.” Not that there is anything wrong with BPA, another victim of food scares. BPA, at levels found in foods and food packages, have long been declared safe by the FDA and other respected food safety authorities around the world. Many cans are now easier to open. And to the surprise of some, they contain the same real ingredients that you obtain in the produce section of your grocery store, including freshly harvested potatoes, carrots, and quick-frozen chicken and beef.
Having visited farms and followed freshly harvested tomatoes, corn, and peaches from farms in California and Illinois to processing facilities, these wholesome, real ingredients make their way from farm to package in about four hours. How long have those carrots, organic endive or broccolini been sitting your fridge?
And if you do come down with a cold, the flu, or that dreaded Coronavirus, eating broth-based soups (like Chicken Noodle soup) do, in fact, relieve symptoms and help you keep hydrated.
So, as you hunker down and or self-quarantine, rediscover the value, safety, nutrition, taste and convenience of processed foods. And, if you wind up having over-purchased, your local food bank will be glad to take some of those shelf-stable foods off your hands. Oh, and you’re creating LOTS or new jobs in rural midwestern and other states, including northwest Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, northeast Texas, and the Carolinas.
Kelly Johnston spent 23 years in the food industry as a communications professional and policy advocate. The views expressed are his own.Published in