Americans have been alarmed by empty grocery shelves, but while food suppliers and retailers say they are struggling with surging demand, they insist the supply chain remains strong, write four reporters in an article published by the NY Times.
The aisles and aisles of empty store shelves give the appearance that the United States, improbably and alarmingly, is running out of food.
But the nation’s biggest retailers, dairy farmers and meat producers say that isn’t so. The food supply chain, they say, remains intact and has been ramping up to meet the unprecedented stockpiling brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Even so, shoppers can most likely expect to see empty shelves intermittently, as the nation’s network of food producers, distributors and retailers are stretched as never before. Industries that are calibrated to supply consumers with just enough of what they need on a given day cannot keep up with a nationwide surge of relentless shopping fueled in large part by fear.
Food suppliers and retailers are now not only struggling to satiate crushing demand for canned soup and oat milk, they are battling a perception that the scary scenes at the grocery store reflect a fundamental breakdown.
“There is food being produced. There is food in warehouses,” said Julie Anna Potts, chief executive of the North American Meat Institute, a trade group for beef, pork and turkey packers and producers. “There is plenty of food in the country.”
“Our stores are getting stocked every day,” Ron Vachris, chief operating officer of Costco, said in an interview on Saturday. “Transportation is functioning, our suppliers are working around the clock and the flow of goods is strong.”
Still, the fear is palpable. The more empty shelves people see, the more panic-buying ensues, the more food is out of stock.
Retailers say the frenzy started about two weeks ago, when customers could not find hand sanitizers and wipes, which were actually in short supply. But that set off a wave of panic buying that spread in recent days to include bread, canned goods, milk and frozen food.
These items are moving through the supply chain, but cannot reach the stores quickly enough so retailers have asked suppliers to produce more.
But even as farmers and slaughterhouses ramp up, producing food takes time. Across the industry, “you’re talking about 50 days to get to a customer,” said Matthew Wadiak, who runs Cooks Venture, a chicken supplier based in Arkansas and Oklahoma. “Fifty days ago, we didn’t know this was even on the horizon. There was essentially no way to plan for it.”
It’s clear that the modern supply chain, for all its efficiency and speed, is not equipped to deal with this kind of surge. “The trouble is that the hoarding hasn’t abated. We’re just seeing the very beginning of this kind of behavior,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “The question is: How long will it take for industry to catch up?”