Benjamin Whitely was on his way to a Safeway supermarket in Washington DC on Tuesday to buy some things for dinner. But he was disappointed when he found empty vegetable shelves and a meager supply of turkey, chicken, and milk.
“Looks like I didn’t find anything,” said 67-year-old Whitely. “Now I’m going to have to look elsewhere.”
The shortage in US supermarkets has worsened in recent weeks after new problems, such as the omicron variant of the coronavirus and bad weather, have added to the problems in the supply chain and the labor shortages that have affected retailers since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The shortage is widespread, impacting vegetables and meat, as well as packaged items such as cereal. And it is being reported nationally. Food stores in the United States typically have between 5% and 10% out of stock, but right now that rate is around 15%, according to Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of Consumer Brands. Association.
Part of the shortage consumers are seeing on store shelves is due to trends in the pandemic that never abated and have been exacerbated by the omicron variant. Americans eat more at home than they used to, mostly because offices and some schools remain closed.
The average American household spent $ 144 a week last year on grocery stores, according to the IMF, a food producer and grocery trade organization. That’s below the 2020 high of $ 161, but it’s still much higher than the $ 113.50 families spent in 2019.
And a truck driver shortage that began before the pandemic remains a problem. In October, the American Trucking Association said the country was missing about 80,000 drivers, a record high.
Additionally, cargo shipments remain delayed, affecting everything from imported products to packaging that is manufactured abroad.
Food retailers and producers have been adjusting to those realities since the early 2020s, when panic buying at the start of the pandemic sent the industry into a tailspin. Many retailers are keeping more supplies of things like toilet paper, for example, to avoid a serious shortage.
“All parties involved in the supply chain ecosystem have reached a point where they have that manual and are able to overcome that basic level of problems,” said Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain for the Association of Leaders of the Retail Industry.
But right now, Dankert noted, the additional complications are mounting.
As with hospital, school and office staff, the omicron variant has wreaked havoc on food production lines. Sean Connolly, the president and CEO of Conagra Brands, which produces Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Slim Jim meat snacks and other products, told investors last week that supplies from the company’s plants in the United States they will be limited for at least the next month due to absences related to the omicron variant.
The absences of sick workers are also affecting grocery stores. Stew Leonard Jr. is president and CEO of the Stew Leonard’s grocery chain that operates stores in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Last week, 8% of its employees, about 200 people, were sick or in quarantine. Generally, the level of absenteeism is 2%.
A supermarket bakery had so many sick days that it stopped making its usual products. Leonard said suppliers of meat and produce have told him they are also dealing with a worker shortage related to the omicron variant.
Meanwhile, weather-related events, from snow storms in the northeastern United States to wildfires in Colorado, have also impacted product availability and caused some customers to buy more than usual, exacerbating supply problems caused. for the pandemic.