Supermarkets are turning to brands different from the ones they normally stock to fill empty shelves, restaurants have cut menus to cope with a limited pool of available ingredients, and prices across the board are steadily on the rise. increase.
Welcome to the food industry in an era of supply chain struggles.
As the federal government works to reduce bottlenecks and market share in meat processing, Massachusetts restaurant and grocery store leaders say they continue to struggle under the combined pressures of inflation, low inventories and labor shortages.
“It’s a confluence of all events,” Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, told News Service. “There is a shortage of truckers, a shortage of warehouse workers, a shortage of pickers, a shortage of meat cutters. It is only wreaking havoc on everyone in the retail world.
As the supply chain struggles date back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the virus and the public health response led to a slowdown in manufacturing and shipping, the omicron variant and the Increasingly common labor shortages have put the problem back in the spotlight in recent times. month.
In October, the American Trucking Association estimated that there was a shortage of 80,000 drivers across the country to meet freight demand.
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The trucking industry is not alone: Companies in virtually every industry have described staffing issues, especially since the omicron variant emerged about two months ago and caused a further increase. winter of COVID-19 infections.
And in the complex maritime transport network, cracks in one link in the chain can disrupt others downstream.
Massachusetts Food Association senior vice president Brian Houghton, whose group represents supermarkets and grocery stores, told of the struggles of an MFA member whose bakery bakes bread for other companies to sell.
Bakery staff recently complained that they couldn’t get “any of the ingredients they need to make the products,” Houghton said, which has reduced activity and prevented other stores from stocking his bread.
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Many grocers are now faced with a choice due to the tension in the supply chain: to let certain shelves empty, or to offer customers different brands and products than they expect.
“Say you’re in the dairy aisle. You’re going to see different names or different brands of what is usually seen because everyone is working to get substitutes,” Houghton said. “They just can’t get the products that they usually got in the past, and that trickles down to the ports, which are slow.”
Houghton said he started hearing about the disruption over the summer. Restaurants are also struggling with products that have been unavailable “fairly regularly for months, not weeks,” according to Luz.
To deal with the uncertainty, Luz said many of the 5,000 Bay State restaurants her group represents have had to revamp their menus. Some have reduced their offerings completely to “stick with ingredients that they know don’t disrupt the supply chain,” he said.
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“It’s hard enough if you’re shopping for a family, but imagine having a menu that you’re supposed to deliver to guests every week,” Luz said. “For example, all of a sudden the chicken wings are out of stock. How is a restaurant out of stock on chicken wings? “
At the Greater Boston Food Bank, supply chain issues pose a “conundrum,” the organization’s chief executive officer, Catherine D’Amato, said on Wednesday.
She told the New England Council that products that would normally arrive in two to three weeks are now arriving in five to seven weeks. In addition to the delays, the food bank is grappling with a “10 to 20 percent increase” in the cost of the food it purchases in bulk.
Some products such as shelf-stable milk and eggs weren’t available at times, she said.
“Pork was a problem because of the factories or because of where they made it, the workers got sick, and when the workers got sick they couldn’t produce the product,” D’Amato said. “You’ve seen all of this happen before, and it’s happening again. “
“This will continue,” she added. “We know that supply chain volatility, whether food or non-food, is going to continue, depending on when these products are made, are they made in the United States, or are they imported.”
President Joe Biden set up a supply chain disruption task force over the summer and asked it to formulate a response to ease the pressure on distributors and businesses.
Some actions the administration has taken so far include proposing fees for ocean carriers that have left import containers in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for too long and funding pop-up inland ports. up in Savannah, Georgia, to reduce congestion, according to John Porcari, the Port Envoy to the White House Supply Chain Task Force.
Biden also announced Monday that the federal government will allocate $ 1 billion in funding for the American Rescue Plan Act to expand processing capacity in the meat and poultry industry, his office warning that a handful of companies controlling most of the market creates a “key bottleneck in the food supply chain.”
“It’s hard to say if the pressures in the supply chain are at their peak – peaked,” Porcori said at a press briefing on Wednesday, according to a White House transcript. “I think what’s clear is that the pandemic laid bare what the underlying reality was that the supply chain was stressed even before the pandemic. And we clearly have changes to make. to build a more sustainable and resilient supply chain. “
The Massachusetts restaurant industry is expected to face a “significant labor shortage” around this time as baby boomers retire at a faster rate than new workers join, Luz said , a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.
Labor issues aren’t limited to for-profit businesses, either. Like restaurants and grocery stores, the Greater Boston Food Bank is “challenged” for attracting employees, D’Amato said during his New England Council appearance.
D’Amato told the board that increasing base wages is an “important starting point for tackling food insecurity” because it could help attract more employees to fight hunger.
“I compete with all the retailers that have a warehouse. I’m competing with Amazon, I’m competing with Walmart,” D’Amato said. “This salary will make a difference. We all want to keep our workers and we all want them to lead healthy lives. I do. I hope other companies will too. I think you can do well by doing good with your workers. “