Speed Reads

where's the beef?

U.S. supermarket shelves really are half-empty, and Omicron isn't the only culprit

When shoppers in Great Britain began posting photos of supermarket shelves filled with stock photos of absent produce last fall, maybe you, consumer in the land of bountiful supermarket options, smirked a little. Well, now the barren shelves — if not the fake photos — have arrived in U.S. grocery stores.

"Some of the culprits for this round of shortfalls are the same as in the early days of the pandemic, and some can be chalked up to new problems bumping up against old ones," The Washington Post reports. Reporter Laura Reiley broke the culprits down into four main categories: The Omicron surge, winter weather, supply chain kinks, and the uptick in the number of people eating at home. But really, all of those reasons are connected, and most of them are tied to the troublesome new COVID-19 variant.

For example, people are probably eating at home more because of concerns about getting infected at restaurants, belt-tightening due to inflation linked to supply chain issues, and children staying home from school due to a COVID-19 infection or Omicron-linked staff shortages at school. And Omicron has caused its own supply chain meltdown, sidelining workers at every step from factories for key ingredients through the transportation sector to the grocery stores themselves. 

Companies are reporting more positive COVID-19 tests among workers in the first two weeks of 2022 than in all of 2020, Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association trade group, told food industry chief executives in a call Monday. "That's remarkable," he said. "Throw on top of that being down 80,000 truck drivers nationally, and another 10 percent of workers being absent at food manufacturing facilities, and you're putting a lot of pressure on the system all at one time."

Jim Dudlicek, communications director for the National Grocers Association, said "there is plenty of food in the supply chain," but many grocery stores are functioning with less than half of their normal workforce, making it hard to stock shelves and prepare premade meals. Read more about why some of your favorite items may currently be unavailable at The Washington Post.