Shortages of many basic items on supermarket shelves in Maine and elsewhere are likely to persist for months as food suppliers scramble to meet unprecedented consumer demand.

With initial stockpiles gone and most families staying home from work and school, grocery purchases are up significantly and demand for some items is far surpassing available supply, according to industry leaders in Maine.

There is no reason to panic, they said. Store shelves still have plenty of food, and there are currently no major disruptions in the supply chain. Supermarket customers are presented with plenty of bread, meat, dairy and fresh produce.

But stores are having a hard time keeping stores of dry goods, canned and frozen vegetables, pasta, rice, baking supplies, paper products and eggs, among other items.

“There is not a critical disruption, but there is a demand issue that is causing periodic shortages on the shelves,” said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations at national food industry association FMI.

Nationally, unit sales of canned vegetables, dry macaroni and cheese, flour, powdered milk, pasta and spray disinfectant on the week ending March 22 were three times more than the same week the year before, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI.


Sales of sugar, toilet paper, soup, frozen pizza and hot cereal were more than double that week compared to the year before.

Problems started after a run on food and household essentials in mid-March, as the pandemic’s severity became clear. The surge in grocery purchases wiped out weeks of supplies supermarket chains and wholesalers normally stockpile in their distribution centers, Baker said.

Without that backstop, supply of some items is dictated by how much producers can manufacture and push directly into the supply chain. That means producers have to limit the amount they can allocate to each supermarket company and wholesaler.

“Now what is happening is machines are producing, but they can only produce so much in a day – they do not have that safety stock to manage demand spikes,” Baker said. “By the time it hits the shelves it is just not lasting as long.”

Frozen and canned vegetables add a different complication. Most of those products are processed and packaged when the crop is harvested, then distributed throughout the year according to demand.

With higher than normal demand for those goods, producers have to limit distribution even further to make sure supply lasts until there is enough new fresh produce to pack away.


“The summer inventories are being utilized to support business right now,” Baker said. “We will probably see continued shortages for canned and frozen vegetables for a few more months.”

Most of what’s available is going straight onto store shelves. On a daily basis, what a customer sees is probably what’s available, said Christine Cummings, president and CEO of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association.

“Grocery stores have a fairly small storage space compared to selling store space – they don’t have huge storage rooms with a lot of backup product,” Cummings said.

Customers should make appropriate purchases and know there is enough to go around, she said, even if lines outside grocery stores formed at the direction of state government to limit the number of people inside at one time give the impression of scarcity.

“From what we’ve seen, the more we can prevent people from hoard purchasing and stocking up on months of supplies, the more there is for everyone,” Cummings said.

The grocery industry has adjusted its logistics, trucking and sourcing to feed demand. Food that was destined for restaurants, schools and other businesses is being rerouted and labeled for grocery sale.


Workforce and equipment also have shifted. Last week, C&S Wholesale Grocers based in Keene, New Hampshire, the largest grocery supplier in the United States, partnered with two restaurant distributors to shift their employees to stocking grocery stores.

“Within the food value chain, there is product. Currently, the issue is more a matter of demand outpacing supply at the point of consumption,” C&S CEO Mike Duffy said in a statement. “There is typically inventory in the supply chain; it is just not currently in a position to be purchased by shoppers.”

Surging demand for groceries is a result of measures intended to slow the pace of coronavirus spread in Maine and other states across the country.

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills issued a statewide stay-at-home order, but in prior weeks restaurants closed down or limited service, many people started working from home and schools and universities across the state closed.

That means entire families are eating most or all of their meals at home, instead of buying lunch or breakfast at work, in a school cafeteria or through a university meal plan, and subsequently creating higher demand for many grocery store items.

Alongside toilet paper, Hannaford supermarkets have a critical shortage of flour, President Mike Vail said. Flour shipments are double normal levels and still fall short of demand. Pasta is similar – shipments are up 60 percent, but demand still outpaces supply.


Other baking supplies – eggs, yeast and sugar – have sometimes failed to meet demand, too. After all, supply doesn’t change if chickens only lay one egg a day at most, Vail said.

“People are at home, their families are at home, they are cooking,” he said.

Hannaford, which has 63 locations in Maine, has refilled its meat, dairy and poultry cases that were depleted in the first weeks of the crisis, Vail said.

In other cases, big producers have stopped making specialty items in favor of focusing energy on top-selling staple goods. Vail doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

“Unfortunately, it is a longer process than what we’d like,” he said. “We are going to be several months getting everything back to normal operation.”

While national supply chains strain to deal with demand, Maine’s food industry sees an opportunity to bring more locally made products to the state’s consumers, said Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.

Farmers have an online map to connect consumers with meat, dairy and vegetables, and other producers are working to get in-demand items onto retailers’ shelves.

“There is an opportunity for more local goods to be sourced,” McBrady said. “People are relying and thinking about local food like never before – the time is quite right to really build up on that.”

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