Special focus: Barry Callebaut’s US division responds to production challenges amid ongoing pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has had major operational implications for businesses across the sector. Neill Barston quizzes Stacey Popham, VP of quality, food safety and regulatory at the US division of Barry Callebaut, on how the confectionery company has responded to the unprecedented conditions


Q: What was your initial response to coronavirus when the pandemic broke in January/February of this year?

A: “What made us pivot and put things in place is our food safety standards, which are very strong. When covid hit, we already had those good manufacturing practices in place, such as washing hands, staying home when sick, and sanitising of surfaces.

“Those things just became a foundation for everything else, so we just added layers on top of those polices.

“Structurally, we said that we will have a global team, one for the Americas, a Canada plant, Brazilian and Chile plant, and established a hierarchy of communications so that we could both push messages out or hear feedback from teams around the world on certain issues like tacking temperature checks of employees, which began a number of months back.”


 Q: What secondary measures has the business taken as the coronavirus pandemic spread?

A: “We really laid out what is our risk mitigation approach to protect our people – food safety is number one, then it’s people safety. Given that we’re dealing with a contagious virus, we placed those areas as our two priorities, and from there everything else relating to business continuity followed on.

“We had to add a lot of layers – temperature screening in the US, which is a novel thing in America. If you’re not in a pandemic there, it’s actually something that is illegal. It’s considered a medical exam, but laws are different in every country, which is one of the things that makes this job interesting, Brazil, Mexico and US all have different laws.

“We added a series of questions including ‘have you been near places that are high risk? or near a person that has been confirmed as positive? or have you had any difficulty breathing?

“In the second layer, we had to work out social distancing, as there may be people who are either pre symptomatic or asymptomatic, so there’s still a chance that people who were sick still coming in. So, we tried to relate it to what we’re doing, by saying that people had to be 6ft away which equates to a certain amount of cocoa beans or around 15 chocolate bars distance between each other, putting in that heavy duty social distancing, as well as developing heat maps of certain areas of the factory.

“There are some situations where it’s not possible to social distance, for instance with packaging lines – you can’t socially distance, so we had to create physical flexiglass barriers, which was our next layer.”


Q: How many facilities are involved in the US division of Barry Callebaut?

A: “We have 18 factories that we are working at – all making different products, so what works in one plant where there may be one operator in a room, might be very different elsewhere.

“The situation is actually an engineer’s dream – go and tell them to design physical barriers and they will do it in minutes, including a system for taking temperature.

“The answer has never been that we could not run any of our lines, we just said, how can we actually make this work. In fact, there wasn’t one product line that we had to shut down because we couldn’t social distance. Some took a few days to work it out, as there can be a lot of complexity to these sites.

“We have a total of 3,500 employees including office based and plant staff in the US, with all factories servicing customers in their respective areas – some are making chocolate (including liquid chocolate to customers), or others making final products.”

Q: Did you have a phased approach to food safety amid the pandemic?

A: “For us, as mentioned, the first thing was keeping those out who were not well, secondly was social distancing, and third is in increasing sanitation of shared areas, stair wells, door knobs, and taking advice from the WHO in increasing to a higher level of sanitation – not that we were not cleaning previously, but our key focus has always been on the food. The final thing was in relation to face masks – so when that news came out, we starting shipping masks from China to get everyone a mask as quickly as possible to reduce respiratory droplets.”


Q: Overall, how challenging has this crisis been on the business?

A: “The thing we have going for us, when you work in an organisation that is used to continuous improvement – the work was in the education, the comms and making sure that it was clear and implemented.

“I’d say the biggest challenge was keeping up with what the world knew about the virus, because we were then quickly able to assimilate these guidelines, and being very science and data based about responding to it.

“Plant managers want to keep their staff safe, so there hasn’t been any resistance to the plans, it’s just been a question of how do we do certain things. Getting resources to everyone was another test, which meant that we had to set aside some of our other programmes.

“But absolutely, the pandemic has been the biggest challenge we have faced as it’s global, it impacts on everything in the supply chain to the finished product – everyone is impacted, even with distribution.

“You have to just focus on what you can control, and it’s a tremendous feat to be able to do all this. Not all of customers were able to do this – it requires a large amount of co-ordination.

“We are still in the middle of the pandemic, so for us is keeping up the diligence, you worry about covid fatigue and worry about what is challenging for people, these strict protocols, they leave the factory, the bar is opening, and nobody is wearing a mask, so it can be very confusing.

“So, we have been trying to bridge that gap – our priority is on protecting them and so the focused on that comms around why outside the government may be opening certain facilities, but inside the factory we are maintaining everything. That’s what we are really proud of protecting our people and they took care of the rest, our operations have been really stable and even hitting some records in some cases.”

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