CHICAGO (NEXSTAR) — Notice your grocery store shelves looking a little bare lately? You’re definitely not the only one. Supply chain issues have created shortages of highly specific ingredients.
“Meat products are still one of the harder products to keep in stock,” explains Rodney Holcomb, food economist at Oklahoma State University. “Following last year’s concerns about meat availability, many consumers are stockpiling meat out of concerns of another pandemic shutdown.”
Holcomb says concerns over the delta variant have some shoppers buying a little more than typical, just in case they need to buckle down and stay at home for a while. A lot of ready-to-eat items like frozen meals or shelf-stable boxes of mac and cheese are in especially high demand, so they may be harder to find.
But it’s not just heightened demand causing issues – supply is also a problem right now. An aluminum shortage is making canned products like sodas, soups and canned meats hard to find, too, Holcomb says. Those are packaged in aluminum and shelf-stable, so they’re both in short supply and in high demand.
Even when you can find your groceries, they’re likely more expensive. The price of meat, poultry, fish and eggs rose 5.9% from July 2020 to July 2021, according to the Department of Labor. Overall food-at-home costs are up 2.6%.
What’s causing the shortages and high prices?
“We use the term ‘shortage’ but it’s really more of a food supply bottleneck,” explains Holcomb. “We still have the same production potential, but labor shortages are having widespread impacts across harvesting, processing, packaging, and shipping.”
We saw issues with meat shortages throughout 2020, Holcomb explains, not because there wasn’t enough livestock to consume. Rather, COVID-19 outbreaks would shut down meat processing plants, creating a bottleneck in getting the product out. In other cases, socially distant setups at processing plants and factories ended up reducing efficiency overall.
Another thing driving costs up is energy prices, Holcomb adds. Refrigerating perishable food costs money, not just at the store but also all along its journey to the store. Energy prices are high right now (you may have noticed at the gas pump) and those costs are being passed on to consumers.
Things were starting to normalize, but the delta variant threw the food chain for a loop. Holcomb expects things to be more stable next year in 2022.
“The food industry is very resilient,” he said. “Food industry members are always adjusting to changes in consumer tastes and preferences for new food products, new distribution technologies … COVID just meant that food industry members had to make big adjustments instead of small tweaks. Given a little time, we’ll steady the boat.”