February 14, 2022

Why are some shelves empty at Canadian grocery stores? Experts weigh in

While some Canadians are reporting empty shelves in grocery stores across the country, experts say this is due to ongoing supply chain issues that began at the start of the pandemic, not because of the federal government’s vaccine mandate for truckers.

A convoy of truckers and others opposed to public health restrictions is on its way from British Columbia to Parliament Hill for a weekend “freedom rally” against mandatory vaccinations.

Some supporters of the convoy have taken to social media to warn the vaccine mandate for truckers will leave Canadian store shelves empty, and others have gone so far as to predict Canadians will starve.

While there may be limited selection in stores, Dalhousie University professor of food distribution and policy Sylvain Charlebois says Canadians won’t go hungry.

“Grocers know that empty shelves are bad for business… and [they] will make things move along the supply chain so consumers can leave grocery stores with products in their hands,” Charlebois told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

“They don’t want empty shelves, so they’ll do everything they can, vaccine mandate or not.”

The food industry has been warning since March 2020 that Canadians will likely experience shortages of some items and increased prices at the grocery store amid COVID-19. Now, experts say these shortages have been compounded across the world by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

“We are expecting sporadic empty shelves here and there, and it’s the same in the U.S.,” Charlebois said.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has said that there has been no “measurable impact” on the number of trucks crossing the border since the cross-border vaccine mandate went into effect on Jan. 15.

IMPACT ON CONSUMERS

Metro president and CEO Eric La Fleche, the head of one of Canada’s largest grocery chains, said Tuesday the biggest impact on Canada’s food industry supply chain has been worker absenteeism due to COVID-19 protocols.

La Fleche said that vaccine mandates for truckers have raised transportation costs, but haven’t impacted the shipment of goods to stores.

“There’s certainly less variety than there should be and we’re not as full as we’d like to be,” he said. “But we’re not missing food out there.”

La Fleche says the labour shortage caused by quarantined workers has impacted global supply chains, driving sporadic outages of certain goods. However, he said the worst of the product delays and shortages might have passed.

“More and more people that were infected are back at work, both at our suppliers and in our own operations,” La Fleche. “It’s improving every day. Every week, we’re getting better.”

University of Guelph agribusiness professor Simon Somogyi told CTVNews.ca that if there are issues getting supply from truckers travelling into Canada, he said it is mostly because of winter weather in the U.S.

“Like many years, the shortages or the outages around this time are compounded by winter storms and that’s typical,” Somogyi said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

However, he said consumers do not need to be concerned as experts don’t anticipate these issues being long-term.

“When we saw those massive outages in 2020… people were panic buying and we just couldn’t keep up with demand. Now, some of these issues like winter storms and trucks, absenteeism issues, these are going to be relatively short-term,” Somogyi said.

With this in mind, Somogyi said there is no need for Canadians to start panic buying. However, he says they may have to be “smarter” about what they buy amid the ongoing shortages, such as looking for cheaper alternatives and planning meals ahead of going to the grocery store.

“If you panic buy and buy too much you end up wasting a lot of product that doesn’t get eaten, and that’s just throwing away money,” he said. “It’s about being smart and hoarding product is not a smart move.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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