The great global jam empties the supermarkets of the United States | Economy


Empty shelves in the butcher section of a Miami supermarket on January 11.
Empty shelves in the butcher section of a Miami supermarket on January 11.Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Monday, January 31, half past three in the afternoon. The frozen section of a New York supermarket belonging to a popular national chain – equivalent to the Spanish Mercadona – looks like it had been razed to the ground by the Huns. Not a sad bag of vegetables, no fish; even less any rest of the usual offer of prepared dishes. The shortage of some products is repeated, in intermittent peaks, as a result of a perfect storm: the weather, the persistent jam in the supply chains, and the shortage of labor (there are 80,000 truckers missing in the country) and storage places . If the impact of the omicron variant on the labor market is added, the panorama approaches collapse.

Guided by the eminent practical sense of Americans, portals and blogs publish lists of products that are in short supply; there are search tables, as well as notices on community social networks about where to find this or that food. And no, it is not toilet paper, which disappeared as if by magic from stores at the beginning of the pandemic, the most precious asset. Although it is still in high demand, there is also a shortage of canned food, eggs, chicken and meat (especially processed meat); pet food, deli meats, packaged juices, cream cheese, infant formula, and alcoholic beverages such as champagne and beer. According to a recent study by the consulting firm KPMG, 71% of consumers say they are worried or very worried about the problem.

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Grocery sales were up 8% in December, which also explains some market weakness. But there should be no panic, reminds the USDA (federal agency of agriculture), emphasizing that there are no widespread interruptions in the supply chain, only temporary restocking problems in stores. Jim Dudlicek, spokesman for the National Grocers Association, which brings together 1,500 independent wholesalers and retailers, with more than a million employees, agrees with the diagnosis. “Although there is plenty of food in the supply chain, we anticipate that consumers will continue to experience sporadic disruptions in certain product categories, as we have seen over the past two years due to ongoing labor and distribution challenges,” he says.

The disruption explains the rise in inflation, at its highest for four decades. Increases in energy and freight costs continue to push prices up. Although spending on food accounts for only a seventh of the budget of US households, according to IMF data, in December the shopping bag became more expensive by 6.3% compared to the same month of 2020, although the rise in prices of meat, chicken, fish and eggs doubled (12.5%). President Joe Biden himself criticized this Friday the monopolies in the meat industry and other basic sectors. “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It is exploitation”, reiterated the president, with one of his favorite mantras (the other is “if you don’t find workers, pay them more”).

change of habits

In addition to the reasons stated, some experts add the unusual culinary hobby that caused the pandemic in many homes; the change in eating habits among those who continue to telework or, finally, the precaution in the face of new attacks from the pandemic, such as the omicron, or bad weather. Hoarding and scarcity as the two ends of a very tight rope: that of supply and demand in times of the coronavirus. The shortage not only affects supermarkets and neighborhood stores, but also large retailers, which have imposed a limit of units per customer on certain products. Not even fresh flowers, a common product in supermarkets, are spared from the deficit.

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For Patrick Penfield, professor of supply management at the Syracuse University business school, there are three clear causes that explain the phenomenon: the omicron variant, the weather, and the shortage of packaging and packaging boxes. “Many US food stores and producers are dealing with sick or quarantined employees. This shortage of staff causes problems within the supply chain because not as much food can be produced as needed, there are not enough people to deliver it, and once it reaches the stores, there is no one to unload it and put it on the shelves. Additionally, we are seeing unprecedented snowstorms. Due to these weather events, there are even more delays in food production, distribution and storage. The latest problem in the supply chain is the shortage of packaging. Many growers have trouble getting even all the corrugated boxes they need,” explains Penfield.

As a consequence of the omicron variant, between the last week of December and the first week of January, the food industry recorded more casualties than in all of 2020, according to data from the Consumer Brands Association. The employers’ association of consumer brands calculates that 10% of the workers in the processing plants have caused sick leave due to covid.

For Dudlicek, it is a scenario that can be extrapolated to other sectors. “Labor shortages across the country continue to put pressure on critical industries, including food. As we have seen in the rest of the economy, product availability and inflation are being driven by a perfect storm of factors including ongoing labor shortages throughout the supply chain, an acute shortage of truck drivers and occasional interruptions, for example in packaging production,” he explains by email. That is why sometimes, among many other problems of the first world, the long-suffering American consumer cannot savor his favorite beer; nor his cat, he thinks he wants.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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