Why Grocery Store Shelves Look Bare Even Though There's No Food Shortage

Restaurant, school, hotel, and workplace closures have changed the way food is being distributed, causing a major "logistical headache."
April 9, 2020, 7:13pm
food shortages coronavirus groceries
Photo: Getty Images

A few days ago, Bernd Ohlmann, the managing director of a Bavarian trade association, said that Germans will see fewer empty shelves in their local supermarkets because customers had finally realized that the country's food shortages were only temporary and they'd stopped making panic-driven 'hamster purchases.'

"At last, there is calm on the hamster front," he said. "Reason is slowly taking hold. All hamsters now have enough toilet paper." That joke that there's a German word for everything is true even during a global pandemic: hamsterkauf is a gloriously descriptive term for stockpiling, comparing shoppers who take too many packages of pasta or whatever to hamsters who frantically shove food in their cheeks.

Although the Germans have calmed down and are no longer 'hamstering' their way through grocery stores, are Americans ready to behave rationally and put their faith in the supply chain too? The answer is... maybe, but only because we don't always understand why certain products are out of stock, and what that means for the overall food supply.

First, we do not have a food shortage, despite the number of products that might currently be out of stock. “There are no widespread or nationwide shortages of food despite localized reports that you’re seeing.” Frank Yiannas, the Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response at the FDA, told The Washington Post.

"I’ve gone to my retail outlet and I’ve seen some empty shelves but by and large, in terms of some of the communication I’ve had with some of the nation’s largest food manufacturers and retailers, they are telling us that this is really an issue of unprecedented demand. Replenishment will occur.”

And as the National Farmers Union explained in a wonderfully informative Twitter thread, restaurant, school, hotel, and workplace closures have significantly changed the way food is being distributed. "Usually, ~1/2 of food is purchased at grocery/retail stores, and ~1/2 is purchased away from home," it wrote. "But now, almost all food consumption has shifted to the first category. But the supply chains for retail and commercial food are almost completely separate. They rely on different processors, packers, and distributors. It's a logistical headache to funnel food from one supply chain into the other."

That means there might be some temporary shortages (and temporary delivery disruptions) in stores while distributors try to figure this out. It also means that retailers might be paying higher prices for suddenly in-demand products, like eggs.

The Wall Street Journal reports that egg sales increased by 30% between the end of February and the end of March, while the wholesale price of a dozen eggs more than tripled, jumping from an average of 94 cents at the beginning of March to $3.01 a dozen last week. In order to keep eggs in stock, supermarket chains have started buying them from food service distributors that aren't currently selling them to restaurants. (Kroger, the country's largest grocery chain, has teamed up with Sysco and U.S. Food—companies that normally sell to restaurants and, say, college cafeterias—to ensure that high-demand products will continue to be available.)

But again, it's all tremendously complicated. Despite the fact that sales of dairy products have increased, with milk sales up by more than 50 percent, cheese sales increasing by 84 percent, and butter purchases jumping by a whopping 127 percent, some dairy farmers may be forced to dump thousands of gallons of milk because they've lost their wholesale and restaurant clients. Cheese producers are also struggling, as they may not have the ability to convert large wholesale packages into smaller, more retail-friendly portions.

Vegetable farmers are in similar predicaments, leaving fields of cucumbers, squash, and peppers to rot because they can't afford to pay workers to pick that produce if there aren't any restaurants or wholesale suppliers that are going to buy it.

"Think about all the sandwiches that people eat at lunch when they go out. Burgers, or salads at restaurants," Michael Schadler, from the Florida Tomato Exchange, told NPR, adding that vegetable growers are "walking away from big portions of their crop."

A BBC report explained that, at any given time, an American supermarket has 20 to 30 days worth of inventory in the store. The local retail distribution centers that supply each store have another 30-ish days worth of product, while larger regional distribution centers also have roughly a month's worth of inventory that has been received directly from manufacturers.

One of the ongoing challenges has been moving products through the supply chain quickly enough to replenish over-shopped supermarkets, and for the stores themselves to get it off the trucks, into the back rooms, and onto the shelves fast enough to meet demand.

"In other words, and in many occasions, supermarkets do actually have products in their storerooms, but they do not have enough staff to bring it to the shelves as fast as they are taken from them,” Jose Arturo Garza-Reyes, head of the Centre for Supply Chain Improvement at the University of Derby, told the outlet.

But, much like in Germany, once the American hamsters have enough toilet paper –– or eggs, or boxed pasta, or jars of peanut butter –– then "reason can take hold" here, too. That's still an oversimplification of an incredibly complex issue, and there will continue to be challenges, but if fewer of us are worried about food shortages that don't currently exist, then maybe the supermarket shelves won't look as terrifyingly empty as they have been.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.