Limited Menus, Empty Shelves: The Ongoing Troubles of the Food Supply Chain

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon to walk into a grocery store and be met with empty shelves. Panic buying, coupled with sudden factory shutdowns and unexpected curveballs like a global shortage of aluminum cans, led to widespread scarcities of everything from soft drinks to soup. But even as the food supply chain managed to pick itself up and regain some semblance of balance, re-opening efforts have thrown another wrench into the machine.

Opening the Starbucks app recently, many users were met with an apology for the coffee chain’s limited menu. Ordering at Chick-fil-A, they were faced with a chain-wide ration of dipping sauces. And visiting Taco Bell’s website, they saw a vivid orange banner alerting them that “due to transportation delays, we may be out of some items at your local restaurant.”

Clearly, the food supply chain’s troubles are not over yet. So, what’s going on—and is there an end to these problems in sight?

Ramp-ups happened suddenly

As cities reopened and vaccination rates climbed, people began venturing back out to restaurants and other venues in increasing numbers—and many producers and suppliers in the food supply chain were caught off guard.

And it’s not just restaurants that are struggling under the weight of increased demand. Grocery stores have once again been flooded by customers looking to stockpile goods as concerns over a fresh surge in coronavirus cases loom, with offerings like pre-cooked meals and bottled water beginning to fly off shelves.

Compounding these challenges are ongoing packaging issues. The aluminum can shortage has yet to be fully resolved, and a worldwide glass shortage emerged earlier this year. And while many experts predict that food shortages will be temporary and limited, they nonetheless pose a problem for retailers met with unhappy customers.

Logistics networks are backed up

While some product and packaging shortages are fueling the fire, many of the challenges within the food supply chain are the result of ongoing backlogs within logistics networks.

Ships are lined up for miles along the California coastline, waiting to offload their cargo at major ports. Trucking and rail networks are buckling under pressure as freight volume increases. These backlogs are likely to take months to ease, and the food supply chain will be far from the only one feeling the strain.

Staff shortages persist

Many industries have been impacted by labor shortages in the wake of pandemic-induced resignations and workforce reshufflings. From warehouse workers to delivery drivers, there simply aren’t enough people to keep the food supply chain running smoothly right now.

While this is a problem everywhere, the UK has been especially hard hit by the dual blows of the pandemic and Brexit. The Office of National Statistics found that around a million people born outside of the UK left the country in 2020—though, due to the difficulty of collecting accurate data during the health crisis, this number may be out by hundreds of thousands of people. Since immigrant workers played a critical role in supporting the food supply chain, this mass exodus has left countless jobs unfilled.

Filling gaps along the food supply chain, so you can keep filling stomachs

It’s going to take time for all supply chains to fully recover from the wide-reaching impacts of the pandemic. In the meantime, if you need temporary logistics management support, we’re here to help. We can augment your staff and take over critical logistics functions to keep your supply chain moving, whatever the coming months hold.

Contact us today to learn more.

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