Ontario’s supply chain issues appear to be getting even worse as shoppers report seeing more and more frequent product shortages at grocery stores.
Over the weekend, shoppers in the Greater Toronto Area posted dozens of photos on social media showing empty shelves where lettuce, onions, rice, meat and frozen produce were once stocked.
“About three weeks ago, I noticed shelves were not getting restocked as quickly,” said Brian Sekandi, who has been going to the same No Frills in south Etobicoke for the last decade.
One day there were no tins of white tuna. The next week there were five tins, he said. Two weeks ago, there were no eggs.
“It made me think they received a small shipment but not enough to fill the shelf,” Sekandi said.
Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said there are a number of factors causing the shortages. Omicron in particular has made existing supply chain issues worse, as more workers contract the virus and stay home, he said.
The shortages vary depending on a grocer’s relationship with its vendors, he said. This can result in shortages of select products at some stores, but not at others.
“Make no mistake, empty shelves are bad for business,” said Charlebois. “When you think of the economics of the supply chain, the motivations are clearly there to get things going.”
In Ontario, snowy weather is another factor causing empty shelves and delays, says Michelle Wasylyshen, a spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada.
“Grocery retailers rely on just-in-time delivery, so weather events like what we saw over a week ago can certainly lead to product shortages,” she said.
Delivery of fresh produce is slowing down. During the winter season, Canada relies more on produce coming from the United States. Shortages are also amplified due to the vaccine mandate for truckers at the border, which went into effect Jan. 15.
Wasylyshen also noted shortages for items such as soups and cereals.
Further compounding the problem was a recent strike in the US at Kellogg’s, which ended shortly before Christmas.
Michael Graydon, CEO of Food, Health, & Consumer Products of Canada, agreed that Omicron has exacerbated the supply chain issues, but emphasized the systemic problem of labor shortages is putting pressure on retailers.
Around 15 to 20 per cent of food suppliers are reporting worker absences, he said. Because Canada receives a vast amount of products from the US, with COVID-19 cases higher south of the border, it’s created an added impact on Canada’s businesses.
Graydon said there will be empty shelves popping up for some time, and while people do not need to hoard products, some might not be available every day.
“One day there may not be tomatoes, or your favorite cereal,” he said. “It will come, but you might have to come back the next day to get it.”
Reena Ghai noticed over the weekend that the cereal aisle was “basically empty” at her local Metro in Mississauga. She said a week or two earlier, the baking aisle had limited stock.
The lack of frozen french fries also caught her attention. She thought that was “a little odd,” but the lack of “cereal was the most noticeable.”
Spokespeople for Metro and Sobeys declined to comment on the empty shelves, and Loblaw did not immediately respond.
Brad McMullen, president of Summerhill Market – an independent grocery store with four locations in Toronto – said the chain has been resourceful in ensuring it gets its various produce and items from an assortment of suppliers.
“If we can not get an item from one supplier, we will find it from another,” McMullen said.
He said they “hear rumblings” and are “bracing for impact” in case there are further supply chain issues or food shortages. But Summerhill sources most of its produce from local suppliers and is not impacted in the same way as big retailers.
The stores sell an abundance of prepared food and Summerhill is expanding its network of restaurant and hospitality suppliers.
“If we can not get things through grocery suppliers, then we can get it from the hospitality side.”
Dino Virgona, co-owner of independent grocer Fiesta Farms, said not everything is going out of stock at once and the items that are out of stock change from week to week.
“Today bottled water looks pretty low, those shelves look pretty empty. Last week it was pasta. It’s all over the map, ”he said.
The shelves reserved for Kellogg’s products have been empty for more than a week.
Fiesta Farms has been experiencing weekly shortages over the past few months, Virgona said. He said it’s become more pronounced with “full empty shelves” but he’s not worried, yet.
“If a supplier says they’re currently out of stock, but more is expected to come in a week, then we have an idea of when the food will be available,” Virgona said.
If that process is delayed further, he says, then concern will kick in.
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