US shoppers are finding some groceries to be scarce due to viruses and weather

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Benjamin Whitely went to a Morrisons supermarket in Washington DC on Tuesday to pick up some items for dinner. But he was disappointed to find the vegetable boxes meager and a sparse selection of turkey, chicken and milk.

“It seems like I missed it all,” said Whitely, 67. “I’m going to have to look for things now.”

Bottlenecks in U.S. grocery stores have worsened in recent weeks as new issues – such as the fast-spreading Omicron variety and severe weather – have exacerbated supply chain struggles and the labor shortage that has plagued retailers since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The scarcity is widespread and affects products and meat, as well as packaged goods such as grain. And they are reported nationwide. US grocery stores typically have 5% to 10% of their items out of stock at some point; According to the President and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, Geoff Freeman, that unavailability rate is currently around 15%.

Some of the scarcity consumers see on store shelves is due to pandemic trends that have never let up – and are made worse by Omicron. Americans are eating more at home than they used to be, especially as offices and some schools are closed.

The average U.S. household spent $ 144 a week in the grocery store last year, according to FMI, a grocery and grocery trade organization. That was a decrease from the high of $ 161 in 2020, but still well above the $ 113.50 households spent in 2019.

A shortage of truck drivers who started construction before the pandemic also remains a problem. The American Trucking Associations announced in October that the U.S. was running out of an estimated 80,000 drivers, a historic high.

And shipping continues to be delayed, which affects everything from imported food to packaging that is printed overseas.

Retailers and food manufacturers have been adjusting to these realities since early 2020 when panic buying at the start of the pandemic left the industry in a tailspin. For example, many retailers keep more supplies such as toilet paper ready in order to avoid acute shortages.

“Everyone in the supply chain ecosystem has reached a point where they have this playbook and are able to address these fundamental challenges,” said Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group .

In general, the system works; Dankert notes that empty shelves have been a rare phenomenon in the past 20 months. It’s just that at the moment additional complications have been building up on that basis, she said.

As with staffing in hospitals, schools and offices, the omicron variant has also taken its toll on food production lines. Sean Connolly, the president and CEO of Conagra Brands, which makes Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Slim Jim meat snacks, and other products, told investors last week that due to omicrones, shipments from the company’s U.S. plants will be for at least the next month will be restricted. related absences.

Workers’ illness also affects grocery stores. Stew Leonard Jr. is the President and CEO of Stew Leonard’s, a supermarket chain that does business in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Last week, 8% of its workers – around 200 people – were either sick or in quarantine. As a rule, the absenteeism rate is closer to 2%.

A bakery shop had so many sick people that they dropped some of their usual items, like apple crumble cake. Leonard says meat and grocery suppliers have told him they are also facing a labor shortage related to omicrones.

Even so, Leonard says he generally receives deliveries on time and thinks the worst of the pandemic may already be through.

Weather-related events, from snowstorms in the northeast to forest fires in Colorado, have also impacted product availability, causing some buyers to stock up more than usual, compounding the delivery problems caused by the pandemic.

Lisa DeLima, a spokeswoman for Mom’s Organic Market, an independent grocer with locations in the Mid Atlantic, said the company’s stores ran out of products this past weekend because of winter weather trucks trying to get from Pennsylvania to Washington stopped.

This bottleneck has now been resolved, said DeLima. In their view, the intermittent shortages of certain items that shoppers are now seeing is nothing compared to the more chronic shortages at the start of the pandemic.

“People don’t have to panic buying,” she said. “There’s a lot of product out there. It just takes a little longer to get from A to B.”

Experts disagree on how long grocery shopping sometimes feels like a scavenger hunt.

Dankert thinks this is a hiccup, and the country will soon return to normal, albeit with ongoing supply chain headaches and labor shortages.

“You won’t experience long-term product failures, just sporadic, isolated incidents __ this window in which it takes a minute for the supply chain to catch up,” she said.

But others are not that optimistic.

Freeman of the Consumer Brands Association says omicron-related malfunctions could increase as the variant hits the Midwest, where many large food companies like Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. have offices.

Freeman believes the federal government should better ensure that key food workers have access to testing. He also wanted uniform rules for things like quarantine procedures for vaccinated workers; Right now, he said, businesses are dealing with a patchwork of local regulations.

“I think, as we’ve already seen, this subsides with each wave. But the question is, do we have to succumb to the whims of the virus, or can we do the amount of testing we need? ”Said Freeman.

In the longer term, it could take food and grocery companies a while to understand the customer buying patterns that will emerge as the pandemic subsides, said Doug Baker, vice president of industrial relations for the FMI’s food industry association.

“We have gone from being a just-in-time inventory system to having an unprecedented demand that is on top of an unprecedented demand,” he said. “We’ll be playing with this whole inventory system in the years to come.”

Meanwhile, Whitely, the Safeway customer in Washington, said that he is lucky to be retired because he can spend the day looking for products when the first few stores he tries are empty . People who work or have to care for sick loved ones don’t have that luxury, he said.

“Some are trying to get food in order to survive. I’m just trying to cook a casserole,” he said.

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Associated Press Writer Parker Purifoy in Washington and Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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