Grocery stores are grappling with growing labor and food shortages, experts say, which could threaten Canada’s food security.
Gary Sands, senior vice president of public policy for the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said on Tuesday that employee absenteeism due to sick calls and COVID-19 protocols has reached about 30 percent in some stores and continues to grow.
Without access to rapid testing in many provinces, workers are repeatedly forced to self-isolate for a week or more after being exposed to COVID-19, he said.
If the situation worsens, some grocery stores will be unable to remain open, Sands said, threatening food security in rural and remote areas that depend on a single independent grocer.
“If we have to keep sending people home, at some point the stores won’t be able to open,” he said. “We are very disappointed with the lack of rapid grocer test kits.”
Health Canada has provided some rapid testing kits directly to companies in critical sectors, including the food industry, that employ 200 or more people.
But many independent grocery stores don’t meet that threshold, making these kits unaffordable, Sands said.
However, many grocers also cannot get rapid tests through the provinces, he said.
“There are independent grocers in a lot of places in this country where there is no other grocery store,” Sands said. “If these stores close, you will have food security issues.”
Meanwhile, stores are also experiencing shortages due to supply chain issues, including trucker shortages, packaging and handling delays, and the Canadian winter.
Grocers rely on on-time delivery, meaning that even temporary issues such as inclement weather can lead to delays and shortages, Retail Council of Canada spokeswoman Michelle Wasilishen said.
However, empty shelves in some supermarkets should only be temporary, she said, noting that retailers are exploring every avenue to get items to stores as quickly as possible.
But some supply chain problems may be longer lasting, such as the trucker shortage exacerbated by the federal government’s new vaccine mandate.
“The problem with truckers needing to be vaccinated is causing some delays, especially with fruit and vegetable shipments from California,” Sands said.
“Merchants in Central Canada are mostly reporting delays of just a couple of weeks, but in the West, the shortage seems to be more significant.”
In some cases, Sands says, grocers are short of nearly 40 percent of their usual stocks of various foods.
“Especially in the West, some grocers say the supply situation is as bad as it was in the spring of 2020,” he said.
The shortage is felt not only in the grocery department. Soups, cereals and cleaning products are being used below the norm, Sands said.
For example, many shoppers have noticed empty shelves where Kellogg’s cereal is usually stored.
Kellogg Canada said in an emailed statement that higher household consumption, combined with supply chain issues, has impacted the availability of certain products in Canada, such as Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal.
The company said the “periodic shortfalls” reflect the difficult operating environment all growers are in, adding that it is working hard to get Kellogg’s cereal brands back on store shelves.
Last year, about 1,400 union workers at Kellogg’s factories in the US went on strike for several weeks. The agreement was reached on 21 December.
From Brett Bundale