The chief executive of Hormel Foods is upset front-line workers in the food industry in Minnesota and some other places haven't yet been eligible for the coronavirus vaccine after they experienced the swift spread of the virus early on.
"This is an area we are just incredibly frustrated," Hormel Chief Executive Jim Snee said. "For all this scrutiny last year, now we can't get answers for when our team members are going to be vaccinated. And that's just incredibly unfortunate because these are essential, front-line, food production workers who showed up for work each and every day."
His comments came in an interview with the Star Tribune on Thursday after Hormel announced quarterly results and raised its financial outlook for 2021.
The vaccine rollout has been scattershot across the country. Some states prioritized food workers, including California, Illinois, Kansas and New York, and Hormel employees in those places have received shots.
But in its home state of Minnesota where it has a sizable workforce, Snee said he hasn't been able to get an answer.
Last spring, meatpacking and food-processing plants were an early hotbed for COVID-19 transmission. Producers rapidly reconfigured staffing, purchased protective equipment and reduced proximity among workers.
Still, workers got sick — often from community spread — and were staying at home any time they had close contact with a COVID-positive family member or friend. This reduced available laborers and further slowed production. When coupled with panicked consumers stocking their pantries and freezers beyond normal levels, there were shortages of certain types of meat and other foods or household products.
"We were doing more than our fair share to keep COVID out of our plants and to help out our team members in the community," Snee said. "It is just incredibly disappointing that we don't have an answer."
Internally, Hormel has run an education campaign called "Count Me In" to spell out for workers the merits of getting the vaccine.
In the three months ending Jan. 24, the Austin, Minn.-based food company continued to benefit from the increased eating and grocery shopping of people who are working at home this winter. Executives also noted that the easing of the pandemic was visible in rising orders and shipments of Hormel products to restaurants and other food-service businesses.
Hormel said it earned $222.3 million in the quarter, the first of its 2021 fiscal year. That was down 8.4% from a year ago due chiefly to higher product costs and higher taxes. The profit amounted to 41 cents a share, in line with analysts' estimates. Sales rose 3.2% to $2.46 billion.
Hormel shares rose more than 1% Thursday, a day when broad market indexes fell.
In raising Hormel's sales and profit guidance, Snee cited the return of higher sales to food-service customers, recovery of Chinese and other international markets and the lessons the company has learned in other segments over the past year. That optimism doesn't include the effect of the Planters nut business, which Hormel said last week it would acquire from Kraft Heinz in its biggest deal ever.
"Our retail and deli teams have momentum going into the second quarter even as some of our retail businesses, especially grocery products, have very difficult comparisons due to the extremely high levels of demand we experienced last year," Snee said.
The company now expects its full-year profit to be in a range of $1.70 to $1.82 a share, which has a midrange above the existing analysts' consensus of $1.73 a share. Hormel earned $1.66 a share in its last fiscal year.
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767
Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241