What is the reason for the lack of groceries?
The public discourse on the nature of grocery disturbances has turned into a complete food battle as politicians and experts lobby tomatoes about the cause and severity of Canada’s lack of ingredients.
Last week, Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman tweeted a picture of an empty grocery shelf with a call to “reverse the (vaccine) mandate” imposed by the federal government on truck drivers earlier this month. The picture, it turned out, was taken in the north of England.
Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull, meanwhile, accused the Conservatives of “fearing political gain” by sharing pictures of empty grocery aisles and disgruntled truck drivers. Dozens of people, in turn, took to social media to share their own images of food shortages at their local Metro, Loblaws and Sobey’s stores.
There is little doubt that groceries are in narrower supply – and certainly more expensive – than they were before the pandemic. But the seriousness of the problem can vary depending on geographical location and supplier, and the rhetoric often risks exaggerating.
Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, recently offered a reassuring word to concerned shoppers:
“Canadian consumers should know they want to be well. Operations across the supply chain are incredibly choppy right now, but they will continue to find what they need, albeit with fewer choices,” he said.
A large number of factors have contributed to food disturbances. Here is a deeper look:
Neither the haulier convoy nor the vaccine mandates are solely responsible for food disturbances.
A procession of truck drivers and their supporters weaved through Alberta and Saskatchewan on Monday as they headed to Ottawa to protest a federal policy requiring truck drivers to be vaccinated to keep their jobs.
The mandate could prevent as many as 26,000 truck drivers who regularly cross the Canadian-US border from delivering goods, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance and American Trucking Associations.
This figure reflects about 16 percent of the 160,000 truck drivers who regularly cross the border and does not include the amount of truck drivers transporting food exclusively within Canada. It also does not include the goods routinely transported by rail, such as cereals, meat and canned food.
While putting drivers on the sidelines certainly does not help food circulation in Canada, and it may prevent some shipments from being met on time, it is not so prevalent that it is primarily responsible for shortages.
But the mandate has still garnered criticism from experts, who warn that it could exacerbate an already existing problem.
“In mid-January with Omicron and blizzards, I just’m not convinced it was the right time. Some empty shelves will be a result of what’s going on at the border,” Charlebois said.
2. A wide range of factors have contributed to food disturbances
Canadian grocery stores faced supply constraints well before the trucking mandate was implemented, which was largely due to a mix of extreme weather, working conditions, COVID-19 outbreaks and logistics.
Severe floods in BC late last year destroyed large tracts of farmland in Fraser Valley, a major supplier of poultry, dairy products and products that had already been injured by forest fires earlier in the year.
The recent winter storms have not helped. Last week, as Toronto faced its biggest snowfall in more than a decade, local merchants reported delayed deliveries due to trucks unable to navigate icy and unploughed terrain.
COVID-19 outbreaks have meanwhile resulted in disturbances on farms and producers. A recent ban on new agricultural migrant workers in Windsor-Essex County, where most of Canada’s greenhouse products are grown, has likely contributed to a halt in production.
And the job revolution has also put pressure on the supply of food. While the trucking industry has faced a shortage of workers during the duration of the pandemic, workers’ strikes at food producers have affected supply.
A month-long strike at Kellogg’s at the end of last year may have contributed to a sub-supply of the brand’s grain products and other products in Canadian stores.
Disruptions will result in fewer opportunities rather than violent shortages
Do not store in stock.
Experts have assured Canadians that the vast majority of people – with the exception of those in remote areas who often rely on air shipments of products – will be able to put food on their table, just with fewer options.
“Consumers may not always find what they want at times, but they will always find what they need in the grocery store,” Charlebois said.
4. Supply chain problems, not consumer demand, drive food costs and disruption
Early in the pandemic, consumers’ storage of toilet paper and canned food left the grocery stores bare as households transformed their basements into self-designed apocalypse bunkers.
Now the availability issues are coming from the supply side. All of the above factors seem to offset the buying interest from traders significantly.
That’s what makes these issues so worrying, Charlebois said.
“Lack of both toilet paper and food was the result of consumer panic combined with a collapsing food industry. This time it’s the supply chain’s challenges,” he said.
5. If you did not find the spinach you were looking for, try again tomorrow
Sometimes what appears to be a shortage is really just temporary low inventory. An empty shelf is not a sign of a widespread problem.
If you can not find cherry tomatoes in the supermarket, try the independent grocery store down the street, or come back tomorrow, experts advise.
You can also check with a store manager about the goods.
Anecdotally, a Metro production manager told me recently that they were missing spinach due to a COVID-19 outbreak at their distributor, along with some issues transporting goods during Toronto’s snowstorm.
Five days later, the item was back on the shelf.
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