After nearly a year and a half of COVID-19 restrictions, the American food supply chain is struggling.
Lockdowns in the United States and abroad have sparked disruptions to the food supply industry that make a full recovery seem like a distant goal.
The food supply chain weaves together domestic and international components. When one link is handicapped — or worse, closed — shockwaves reverberate through the system and can take out a link somewhere else, thereby compounding the problem.
One study found that supply chain disruptions cost U.S. and European businesses up to $4 trillion in 2020.
When Americans were told to stay home in March of 2020 and social distancing mandates were enacted, restaurants suffered. While some shifted to take-out and food delivery, many restaurants let go of their staff and, in some cases, permanently closed their doors.
At home, Americans began buying more groceries — including flour when baking became a favorite pandemic hobby. The sudden, concentrated uptick in consumer purchasing led to higher demand. Flour producers didn’t have the means to expedite production — especially as plants struggled to meet new social distancing standards. Packaging products became difficult when cardboard went through its own scarcity because of internal shipping issues. Distribution was handicapped by staffing shortages and rising fuel prices. In short, the nation slid into a flour shortage during 2020.
Across the food industry, this cycle repeated itself, often with more unforeseen variables. Not only did poultry demands and shipping cost zigzag during the past year, but the industry doesn’t have enough products. This is in part because of the winter storms that hit the region of the country that has the most poultry farms during 2020. Additionally, “Tyson Food, the world’s second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, has had a staggering 10,000 employees infected with coronavirus, causing major disruption in their operations,” per Eat This, Not That.
Meat processing plants, as well as other packaging facilities, are not designed to accommodate social distancing requirements which slowed production in many locations.
Smithfield, the nation’s largest pork producer, warned the public about impending shortages after its facility was closed for similar reasons earlier this year.
Deli meats in particular require more people to slice and package them, making more complicated products to produce when there are staff shortages caused by COVID-19 outbreaks or social distancing practices in place. Industry experts are warning that meats of all cuts will be in short supply this year.
Then, a wave of restaurant reopenings after the vaccine rollout further stressed the food supply chain as previously shuttered and shrunken businesses rushed to capitalize on new crowds.
“The disruptions and changes in delivery patterns are driving up transportation costs because the specialized refrigerated truck trailers needed to transport food are in such high demand or out of position,” The Wall Street Journal explains.
International shipping was crushed when shipping container prices skyrocketed due to short supply. When the world went into lockdown, orders for new containers were canceled. China began aggressively recalling containers so that three out of four containers were going back to Asia empty. The slowed global economy meant containers necessary to ship food and other consumer goods weren’t available when they were needed.
Mark Yeager, the chief executive officer of Redwood Logistics told CNBC that there are about 180 million containers worldwide, but “they’re in the wrong place.”
This means everyday items in the grocery store will become more expensive or more scarce. The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted 70% of the garlic consumed in the U.S. comes from China. Because of the expense of internal shipping triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns, garlic prices have risen 30%.
Industry experts have also said that other popular consumer products will be in short supply for the rest of 2021. This includes toilet paper, tampons, diapers, plastic bags, chlorine, steel, furniture, computer chips, and cleaning products.
The Food and Drug Administration also has a list of what medicines are currently in short supply.
“There are currently no nationwide shortages of food, although in some cases the inventory of certain foods at your grocery store might be temporarily low before stores can restock. Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the U.S. and there are currently no wide-spread disruptions reported in the supply chain,” the USDA said in a statement.
Supply chain disruptions and changes in consumer purchasing habits have changed rapidly since the onset of COVID-19. While some areas of the industry may be able to meet new production demands, it is difficult to predict when raw materials will become available or when shipments will be able to reach distributors.