How the Belgian meat industry is coping with the coronavirus pandemic

The second wave of coronavirus infections is coming to an end and the vaccination strategy is being rolled out. Time to catch our breath and look back on an exceptional year, that came with its own, unique challenges. The healthcare sector almost buckled under the strain but the food industry also made an unprecedented effort to keep the food supply chain running. Belgian meat companies managed to navigate the first and second wave fairly well, without too many problems. Were they lucky? No. A good preparation, the resilience to step up to the plate at the moment of truth and good collaboration at the social level proved instrumental in the results that they achieved. 

Belgian Meat Office discussed the past year’s events with Michael Gore, managing director at FEBEV and the man behind the meat industry contingency plan, that served as a guideline for coping with the exceptional crisis that his industry faced.  

We travelled back in time with Michael Gore, to the early months of 2020. Everyone remembered the moment when the realisation hit that “something” was going on in China. However, nobody could surmise that this health crisis would soon hit Europe. 

And why should they. The Chinese have a lot of experience controlling an epidemic like this one. Everyone thought they’d pull it off again. 

But suddenly the virus entered Europe and although the meat industry is used to dealing with changing situations, this unknown threat was a cause for concern. Company executives immediately realised how serious the situation was and were determined to prevent the virus from affecting their company. It is worth remembering that the pig industry was in the throes of ASF around the same time. A real nightmare for the meat industry, in other words. While many people’s hearts would sink at the thought, Michael Gore is quite proud that Belgian meat companies took it in their stride and rose to the occasion. 

Well-prepared at the start 

“To be prepared is half the victory”. Perhaps that is one of the few rules of thumb that remained valid during this crisis. The risks associated with the outbreak of an infectious disease are certainly not new. Manpower is a foremost concern. When a lot of employees fall sick, the continuity of business activities is compromised. Taking into account the fact that the meat industry relies on a complex network of human interactions, ranging from livestock farmers and road hauliers to meat companies, it goes without saying that the outbreak of an infectious disease can quickly lead to a significant reduction in manpower. 

But the Belgian meat industry had made a timely assessment of this risk. The industry association FEBEV took the initiative to draw up a contingency plan, to be used as a guideline to cope with the effects of an outbreak as effectively as possible in and/or during an epidemic or pandemic. 

Belgium announced a lockdown on 13 March 2020. From day one, the roadmap provided guidance, helping companies to quickly draw up a plan that was tailored to their own operation. In hindsight, the precautions that were taken, i.e., the timely drafting of a roadmap, saved the Belgian meat industry from many problems. 

A powerful government-industry partnership 

From the outset, the roadmap provided a framework in which basic guidelines were combined, with an emphasis on containing the outbreak and implementing precautionary measures. As challenges presented themselves, the roadmap was adapted and companies actively participated in the process, along with their customers and suppliers. The initiative got a lot of support, because it was industry-driven and the objective was very clear from the outset: to guarantee the continuity of business activities. During the first wave, the fact that the government was working towards the same purpose proved a great advantage, paving the way for valuable interaction between the industry and the government, in particular with the FASFC. This type of collaboration is typical of the Belgian approach and it undoubtedly proved key in managing the risks. 

The FASFC initially became the ideal counterpart for supervising the implementation of government measures. This duty was later transferred to the FPS WASO (the Federal Public Service for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue).  Feedback was given about any infringements, in order to raise awareness among companies in a more targeted manner. The government’s task force understood early on that it also had to take on board signals from the field where possible. FEBEV offered to act as a single point of contact, ensuring that all the complaints from the animal sectors got to the economic task force and were also followed up. The result was a powerful social work field, that increased the effectiveness of measures and ultimately also contributed to achieving the common goal, namely to guarantee economic continuity and the restocking of food for the population. The meat industry’s roadmap soon found its way to other industries where it served as an example. This was largely inspired by then Minister Ducarme’s request to make available good practices to other industries that were still finding their way. 

But the meat industry also learned from others during this crisis. In the summer of 2020, our neighbouring countries were hit by serious outbreaks, which even led to the temporary closure of production sites and export restrictions to countries such as China. Other countries wondered by Belgian companies had been spared from such outbreaks. They soon concluded that this was largely due to the rapid start that the Belgian meat industry had taken. We were always one step ahead of the competition, a gamble that paid off. 

Examples from neighbouring countries also forced us to think about housing, transports ... and led to continuous updates of the plan.  In retrospect, we must conclude that the number of clusters and the impact of the coronavirus on the Belgian meat industry remains limited. While there were a few outbreaks, food supply was never at risk. 

A new standard for customers 

Finally, we also discussed the customers of Belgian meat companies with Michael Gore. The meat industry is characterised by a customer-oriented business culture. Companies apply a custom approach, they also think about what their customers want and capitalise on the needs of the present and the future. This ability to adapt is quite typical. It could be argued that the approach that was implemented to deal with this crisis is a perfect illustration of this. 

Like many other industries, the meat industry will not return to the situation before 13 March 2020. Instead the efforts made towards improving hygiene and food safety have set a new standard, which will serve as the norm from now on. Under the “new normal”, they will continue to take these additional guarantees on board when serving customers. Ultimately customers thus also stand to benefit. 

“How Belgian companies dealt with the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect illustration of the resilience and flexibility with which they give the best of themselves every day, to supply a product to their customers’ satisfaction, with which we have again raised the bar in the current zeitgeist.” 

The contingency plan for the Belgian meat industry was published on the website of the High Council for the Self-Employed and SMEs. You can find more information at www.hrzkmo.fgov.be  

It serves as a guideline for meat companies for the implementation of a contingency plan in the event of an epidemic or pandemic. Depending on the situation, measures are proposed that build up from level 1 with a focus on personal hygiene to level 5, whereby a totality of measures are proposed, including vaccination. The aim is always twofold: on the one hand to protect the continuity of business activities and on the other hand to protect the well-being of employees and third parties who enter the company. 

Safety measures | HRZKMO - Hoge Raad voor de Zelfstandigen en de KMO | High Council for the Self-employed and SMEs (fgov.be) 

Michael Gore

Meet Michael Gore, managing director at FEBEV (the federation of the Belgian meat industry) since 2016 

Michael Gore is a food safety expert, with wide-ranging experience in the industry. He gained his experience through various positions within the food chain, ranging from quality assurance manager in the meat industry to auditor in quality systems, certification manager of self-checking systems and auditor for BRC, one of the largest standards in existence. He headed his own consultancy firm for more than 10 years and successfully managed it until he returned to the meat industry.  Michael Gore currently represent the fresh meat industry in Belgium on behalf of FEBEV. He works with stakeholders throughout the food chain and with the federation’s members, to facilitate the dialogue between the different actors and respond to the new challenges that the industry faces.