George Ellinidis discusses the legal challenges of keeping shelves stocked amid the pandemic crisis
Changing consumer habits amid stay-at-home orders during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis created new challenges for the legal team at Smucker Foods of Canada Corp. – the owner of many popular fruit spreads as well as brands including Folgers coffee, Robin Hood flour and Bick’s pickles and condiments, to name but a few.
Canadian consumers were faced with empty shelves as people began stock-piling items such as toilet paper and baking ingredients. In particular, a surge in demand for flour resulted in shortages in many grocery stores across the country. As the owner of the well-known Robin Hood flour brand, Smucker faced supply chain issues – not with the flour itself, but with the iconic yellow packaging.
“We had a big rush on flour so we had to shift quickly to come up with something alternative to package the flour, so we switched to a more readily available white bag,” says George Ellinidis, vice president and general counsel at Smucker Foods of Canada, – a wholly owned subsidiary of The J.M. Smucker Company. “That was a challenge because we had to do the legal review and a trademark review, and this was just a new situation so we had to adapt very quickly on a whole bunch of different fronts to get consumers what they needed.”
Ellinidis is also keeping a close eye on regulatory changes and labelling changes that were delayed due to the pandemic, in addition to monitoring contracts, marketing and trademark issues.
Adapting to a remote work environment created further challenges for Ellinidis and his team, as legal is involved in every aspect of the business and regularly meets with internal clients to stay abreast of issues. The team has been making a concerted effort to stay connected with the various departments at Smucker through online means since employees were encouraged to work from home on March 12. Ellinidis heads the company’s four-person international legal / regulatory team at the Markham, Ont.-based office location.
Monitoring the Canada/U.S. border has been an important focus throughout the pandemic for the legal team.
“That was a big issue and concern for us because we are a North American company and our products are shipped both up and down between Canada and the U.S.,” says Ellinidis. Fortunately, food products have continued to flow freely while the border remains closed for non-essential travel.
Planning a strategy for returning to the office is a current focus for Ellinidis although a date for the return has not yet been set. The legal team is assisting HR in continuously monitoring regulations and recommendations on everything from the number of people permitted in a board room to the supply of masks and other materials, as well as making decisions on whether or not to test employees for COVID-19 before allowing them into the office. Ellinidis anticipates employees will not return to offices before January 2021 at the earliest.
Supporting the growth of the business while managing the crisis continues to be a goal for Ellinidis, who has been with Smucker for 11 years.
“The goal was always to be there to satisfy the needs of our internal clients and to ensure that the business objectives of the organization are achieved in a manner that’s effective, efficient and within legal parameters,” he says.