The state of Canadian grocery store shelves has become something of a national obsession in recent weeks. While it’s misleading to suggest the country is somehow running out of food, there are a lot of empty shelves right now. Here’s why consumers should expect that to continue for a while yet.
Never mind hockey, maple syrup or Tim Hortons. Canadians seem to have found a new national obsession in recent weeks: Documenting the state of affairs at their local grocery stores, to try to gauge whether or not the country is in the midst of a food-supply crisis.
Provincial premiers, federal MPs, members of various opposition parties and even members of the bastion of sober second thought that is Canada’s Senate have weighed in on the matter, taking pictures of local grocery store shelves as evidence — or a lack thereof — of a looming crisis in Canada’s food supply.
Since most of those doing the picture-taking have a particular agenda to push, as with anything political, the reality is likely somewhere between what partisans on either side are saying.
While no one can pretend there aren’t a lot of empty shelves out there right now, it’s also unfair to suggest there’s some sort of slow-moving famine underway across the country.
Industry experts agree that the country’s food supply is nowhere close to collapse.
“I don’t think we’re going to be running out of food at grocery stores,” said Simon Somogyi, a professor who studies 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, coupled with vast distances, makes maintaining and distributing supplies tricky 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, particularly as labour shortages became acute as more workers either got sick or had to quarantine because of exposure. A lack of employees to keep shelves fully stocked has been a problem for a while now, even before the federal government’s vaccine mandate for cross-border truck drivers dealt the industry another curveball, making it harder to get food to the loading dock in the first place.
“The Canadian food system rides on the back of a truck … particularly at this time of year, where it’s cold and we have to import a lot of fresh food, like fruits and vegetables, into Canada,” said Somogyi.
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Gary Sands, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said there are indeed shortages of certain goods in certain regions. But on the whole, he said, they are expected to be temporary while the country rides out the “tsunami” of Omicron.
“We’re absolutely seeing product delays and shortages,” he said, especially of fresh fruits and vegetables — a large amount of which come from the U.S. this time of year.
“It doesn’t mean the shelves are completely barren or anything like that. But we’re already starting to see for some products … they’re just not coming in time, or we’re not getting them in the quantities that we need.”
So it’s not as if there are truckloads of food piling up at the border, waiting to be delivered but for a lack of vaccinated truckers.
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor who studies food distribution at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says the problem may be a bit more acute in Canada right now for a variety of factors — but the U.S. is seeing similar stresses to their food supply chain, too.
“We’ve also seen empty shelves in the United States,” he said. “So this is not necessarily a [Canadian] issue.”
Somogyi said the new rules for cross-border truckers are not the main issue, “but it’s one big piece of the pie that is impacting the supply of food and the price of food.”
“We may see some outages of certain products that are taken … a fair distance to get to us, but there will still be options,” he said.
Sands said things like cereals, soups and spices are getting harder to find in Western Canada, while Charlebois said perishables are posing a bigger problem in Atlantic Canada and Northern Ontario.
But the message from both experts is the same: This, too, shall pass.
“The shortages that we’re experiencing right now … are temporary, and I can’t emphasize enough that we don’t want to see a resumption or return to panic-buying,” Sands said. “That helps no one and hurts everyone.”
While empty grocery store shelves were briefly the norm in those early uncertain days of 2020, the situation today is quite different, Charlebois said. “Back in March of 2020, shortages were demand-induced,” he said. “People panicked.”
This time around, he said, this is “really an issue related to supply chains,” that can and will be sorted out. “I don’t think that Canadians will stop having access to food they need.”
No need to panic
While there are some empty shelves across Canada right now, there was little evidence of panic buying at a Save-On Foods in Vancouver that a CBC reporter went to check out on Monday.
“There are always empty shelves, you know, but it’s not too bad,” shopper Thomas Markis said. “I can get by.”
He graded the severity of empty shelves at a two on a scale of 1 to 10, adding that he was able to get all the food he came for, but couldn’t find some other products, like cleaning supplies.
Shopper Tom Saare also managed to get everything he came for — but says that hasn’t always been the case.
“Today’s not too bad, but previous days, there were not the products I wanted,” he told CBC News. “We’ve been given lots of notice that there are going to be some shortages.… And so we just kind of plan accordingly.”
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That’s good advice for everyone, Somogyi said.
“The most important thing is not to panic,” he said. “The food supply chain is highly resilient … so those shortages, they’ll probably be short term, but rest assured that those products will get back onto the shelves.”
Charlebois agrees, saying that from rising costs to threadbare supply, the issues facing Canada’s food supply chain are very real — but none of them rise to the level of widespread food insecurity.
“You shouldn’t be expecting perfection when you walk into the grocery store,” he said. “It will be messy for a while.”