Do grocery stores run out of food? Here’s what’s really going on

Shit with hockey, maple syrup or Tim Hortons. Canadians appear to have found a new national occupation in recent weeks: Documenting the state of affairs at their local grocery stores to try to gauge whether the country is in the midst of a food supply crisis.

Province first, federal MPsmembers of various opposition parties and even members of the bastion of sober reflection, which is the senate of canada, has weighed into the matter and taken pictures of the shelves of local grocery stores as evidence – or lack thereof – of a looming crisis in canada’s food supply.

Since most of those who take pictures have a particular agenda to push, as with everything political, reality is probably somewhere between what partisans on both sides say.

While no one can pretend that there are not many empty shelves out there right now, it is also unfair to suggest that there is some kind of slow-moving famine on the way across the country.

Complex problem

Industry experts agree that the country’s food supply is not close to collapsing.

“I do not think we’re going to run out of food in grocery stores,” said Simon Somogyi, a professor studying Canada’s food industry at the University of Guelph.

Canada’s food supply chain is always a delicate balancing act, Somogyi said, as a relatively short growing season, combined with long distances, makes it difficult to maintain and distribute supplies under even ideal circumstances.

And the current ones are anything but, he said.

The omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the food industry hard, especially as labor shortages became acute as more workers either became ill or had to be quarantined due to exposure. Lack of staff to keep the shelves filled up has been an issue for a while now, even before the federal government’s vaccine mandate for cross-border truck drivers gave the industry another curve, making it harder to get food to the loading bay in the first place.

“The Canadian food system is running in the back of a truck … especially at this time of year when it’s cold and we have to import a lot of fresh food, such as fruits and vegetables, into Canada,” Somogyi said. .

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Gary Sands, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said there is actually a shortage of certain goods in certain regions. But on the whole, he said, they are expected to be temporary as the country rides out of the “tsunami” of Omicron.

“We are definitely seeing delays and shortages of products,” he said, particularly of fresh fruits and vegetables – a large amount of which come from the United States at this time of year.

“That does not mean that the shelves are completely barren or anything like that. But we have already started looking for some products … they just do not arrive on time or we do not get them in the quantities we need.”

So it is not as if there is truckload of food piling up at the border waiting to be delivered, but due to lack of vaccinated hauliers.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor studying food distribution at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says the problem may be a little more acute in Canada right now due to a variety of factors – but the US is also experiencing similar strains on its food supply chain.

“We’ve also seen empty shelves in the United States,” he said. “So this is not necessarily one [Canadian] problem.”

Somogyi said the new rules for cross-border truck drivers are not the main problem, “but it’s a big part of the pie that affects the supply of food and the price of food.”

“We can see some outcomes of certain products taken … a reasonable distance to get to us, but there will still be opportunities,” he said.

Sands said things like grains, soups and spices are becoming harder to find in western Canada, while Charlebois said perishable goods pose a bigger problem in Atlantic Canada and northern Ontario.

But the message from both experts is the same: This too must pass.

“The shortages we’re experiencing right now … are temporary and I can not stress enough that we do not want to see a resumption or return to panic buying,” Sands said. “It helps no one and hurts everyone.”

Remember this? Product shortages today have almost nothing in common with what caused the increase in demand for things like toilet paper back in March 2020, according to food distribution expert Sylvain Charlebois. (Richard Vogel / The Associated Press)

While empty grocery shelves were briefly the norm in the early uncertain days of 2020, the situation today is quite different, Charlebois said. “Back in March 2020, the shortage was demand-induced,” he said. “People panicked.”

This time, he said, this is “really a problem related to supply chains”, which can and will be fixed. “I do not think Canadians will stop having access to food they need.”

No reason for panic

Although there are some empty shelves across Canada right now, there were few signs of panic buying at a Save-On Foods in Vancouver that a CBC reporter visited on Monday.

“There are always empty shelves, you know, but it’s not that bad,” said shopper Thomas Markis. “I can handle it.”

He rated the severity of empty shelves for a two on a scale of 1 to 10, adding that he was able to get all the food he came for but could not find any other products, such as cleaning supplies.

Shopper Tom Saare also managed to get everything he came for – but says that has not always been the case.

“Today is not so bad, but in earlier days there were not the products I wanted,” he told CBC News. “We’ve been told a lot that there are going to be some shortcomings … And then we’re just planning accordingly.”

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At this Save-On Foods in Vancouver, shoppers say there are actually some empty shelves, but there are few signs of panic buying. 2:42

That’s good advice for everyone, Somogyi said.

“The most important thing is not to panic,” he said. “The food supply chain is very resilient … so they are missing, they are likely to be short-term, but rest assured that these products will be back on the shelves.”

Charlebois agrees, saying that from rising costs to depleted supply, the problems facing Canada’s food supply chain are very real – but none of them are rising to the level of widespread food insecurity.

“You should not expect perfection when you walk into the grocery store,” he said. “It’s getting messy for a while.”

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