Coronavirus won’t stop Italy’s pasta factories

6 April 2020 Off By Pastaria

The effects of the coronavirus crisis on pasta factories, as outlined by representatives of Italian pasta producers’ associations (APPAFRE, APPF and Unione Italiana Food).

Heads down and keep working: this is the refrain currently echoing throughout Italy’s agri-food industry. Unfortunately, we are living in historic times: grandparents will recount this period to their grandchildren and students will read of it in their school books. For now, the outcome remains elusive, given the speed at which events are unfolding. 

In these wholly unsettling times – under conditions that, up until a few weeks ago, were the realm of far-fetched science fiction films – food production and processing businesses are being called upon to ensure they keep working. They are tasked with supporting the country while the rest of the national economy has ground to a halt, having been forced – or chosen – to suspend operations. It is their duty, and they are doing it, albeit under critical, pressing and risky conditions.

“For the time being, we are basing our comments on direct information from our member companies, and the sense we get from daily contact with them: pasta producers are operating at full capacity, probably even at a greater rate than normal. We don’t have up-to-date data on demand and sales, however, because our monitoring activities are based on three-month periods, at a minimum. It would therefore be premature to seek to draw reliable conclusions based on just a few days” says Cristiano Laurenza, pasta division secretary at Unione Italiana Food, adding: “for now, the situation is under control. Supply chains are operating as they should, for both fresh and dried pasta. Consumers don’t need to fear that the shelves will be empty”. Unione Italiana Food – an amalgamation of AIDEPI (Italian Association of Confectionery and Pasta Industries) and AIIPA (Italian Association of the Food Products Industries) – thinks it is important to make this clear, to prevent unrest and unjustified assaults on the supermarkets. Like many others, the pasta production industry is currently operating under delicate conditions, as it seeks to manage workers who are under personal and professional strain at this difficult time. “The Government is sensitive to this, however, and we also believe the public is responding well to the measures that have been introduced, so that the infection issue is not being underestimated. People seem to have grasped that this current situation is unlike any other in living memory, and extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, this is the only possible response”.

In order to send a message and serve as an example, Unione Italiana Food has put internal organisational measures in place to ensure minimal staffing of its offices, with operations continuing remotely and via smart-working arrangements, as recommended in the latest decrees handed down in recent weeks. Unione Italiana Food is also providing support and assistance in these challenging times, continuing to provide constant updates to its members, not only on coronavirus-related issues, but also on other ordinary matters of interest. It remains in constant contact with the institutions, including working together to identify measures to prevent national paralysis and interruptions to production and distribution, which could cause untold damage.

“The issues we are facing at the moment are not linked to the market: in fact, demand is generally higher than average for this period. The pasta industry is facing challenges of other kinds, involving working conditions, concerns over the robustness of the logistics system, the risk that the delicate balance that we have miraculously managed to maintain to date might not hold”: explains Fabio Fontaneto, owner of the pasta factory of the same name and chair of Appafre (Association of Small/Medium Fresh Pasta Manufacturers). “This is a critical time and we are making sure not to distract our colleagues from production, which must now be performed with the utmost care”. The pasta industry is operating at full tilt, and has no intention of letting Italy down at a time when the country is calling for the deployment of all possible resources. “In-house workers are facing fear of infection, and taking unprecedented safety measures”, notes Fontaneto.

Provided that the work environment allows, the general rule is to isolate the various units, separating the production, packaging, warehousing and administration areas, so that everything can continue to operate, but without direct contact. Transport personnel don’t even leave their vehicles, there’s no contact between them and the staff receiving the goods. And then gloves, masks and disinfectant for everyone, including administrative staff. This way, in the unfortunate event that a member of the team has the virus, further infection can be prevented, and contacts can immediately be traced to identify the source. Appafre notes that companies fear even a single suspected case of the virus, as it would mean shutting down the whole plant, with all of the adverse consequences that this would entail. For now, Appafre is not making specific requests of the Government. Of course there are concerns for employees, for the robustness of the logistics system, for workers coping with such levels of work and emotional pressure in the long term, if things continue this way. The main challenges faced by the fresh pasta industry are organisational, however, because demand has increased, but under generally challenging conditions, characterised by uncertainty and fear. “The fact remains, however, that the country is calling us to action, and we won’t let it down” declares Fabio Fontaneto, speaking on behalf of his colleagues in the pasta industry across the Italian peninsula and islands.

That same call to action has also been heeded by members of the Association of Fresh Pasta Manufacturers (APPF), led by Giovanni Rana. “Our members are prioritising the large-scale retail channel, which, as we know, has seen a significant increase in demand in recent weeks, both for products with a very short shelf-life, and those that last 6 months or even a year. The HORECA channel, meanwhile, has ground to a halt, for obvious reasons. Some members of our association have even doubled the shifts at their factories”: Gherardo Bonetto, APPF secretary notes, confirming his colleagues’ reports. He adds: “Italians are eating more meals at home than before, which means they are buying a broader range of foods. But sales are also being driven by fear”.

APPF asserts that gnocchi and fresh pasta producers are working at a solid pace, but in a climate of great unease and concern, primarily associated with the inbound and outbound transportation of goods, the availability of masks, gloves and other safety equipment, and the anxiety of staff who are living in intense times, like everyone else, but who are continuing to show up to work. “There is also apprehension among our partners abroad: many of our overseas customers are asking for reassurance that production will continue”, Bonetto notes. There are concerns abroad that the crisis will affect production or transportation of goods and that, for reasons of force majeure, pasta manufacturers will be simply unable to meet their commitments. Unlike manufacturers of other products, our members have not reported a climate of mistrust or speculation, quite the contrary”. This is surprising, given the situation in the wider agri-food industry. Certain countries, showing clear disregard for European treaties on the free movement of goods, are requesting certification for some of our most famous and tightly controlled food products. Minister Bellanova has petitioned for intervention by the European Commission on this matter, to establish that requesting additional certification for Italian products is unacceptable.

The leading pasta associations are all taking similar measures and reporting common experiences among their member companies. But there is one thing they all agree on above all else: sending a strong, clear, and united message to stay at home.