DOVER — Paper towels, disinfectant spray and hand soap have often been scarce since the pandemic began.
But as year three of COVID-19 arrives, a new issue is affecting stores nationwide: a shortage of meat, poultry and seafood.
The availability of these items has been drastically reduced in recent weeks, largely attributed to problems along the supply chain.
With these staple products almost always in high demand, the lack of them is leading customers to wonder what is causing the emptiness on their supermarket shelves.
However, even with bare shelves, scarcity is not the only issue, supply experts say.
“There are a bunch of issues. You can’t really point your finger at one problem,” said James Butkiewicz, professor of economics at the University of Delaware. “From a rise in positive COVID cases at meatpacking plants, to labor shortages, rising feed prices and a shortage of truckers, in general, the supply chain has really taken a hit.”
With a myriad of difficulties regarding supply, it’s hard to determine an efficient solution, and with labor shortages for factory workers and truck drivers, predicting when shoppers can expect a change isn’t simple.
One of the key steps along the supply network is at the beginning, where factory workers are tasked with preparing and packaging meat, poultry and seafood products for distribution.
However, rising cases of COVID-19 have affected the availability of these workers, and since the labor force for these jobs is already small, these outbreaks are greatly slowing down production, officials say.
During visits to several Kent County grocery stores, such as Redner’s, Food Lion, Safeway and Aldi on Monday, the lack of certain products was glaring.
In the freezer section of many of these establishments, frozen chicken and fish were nowhere to be found, and they weren’t the only freezer products missing. Frozen pizzas and oven-ready meals were nonexistent on their respective shelves, leaving a majority of the freezers completely empty.
In the aisles where you’d typically find ground beef and other prepackaged meat, poultry or seafood items, there were very little, if any, containers left. And the majority of the remaining items there actually weren’t meat at all but rather the Impossible brand of beef alternative, derived from plants.
According to Mr. Butkiewicz, the quickest way to get these shortages solved is to get people back into the workforce.
“It’s an issue of workers. … Throughout the distribution process, those jobs have all taken a big hit to an already small labor force. If you get more people working, the process will start to fix itself, but it will still take time,” he said.
For small businesses like the Camden Wyoming Market, empty shelves at big-name stores have provided an opportunity to offer a more local source for meat, poultry and seafood needs.
“Even though we’re about 40% short in labor, our vendors have helped us maintain regular business without sacrificing quality,” said Larry Mola, owner of the Wyoming store.
“I can find any product within three vendors. Us local guys have the benefit of bypassing a lot of the red tape that you see in corporate distribution,” he said.
Mr. Mola, who worked at Whole Foods for over 12 years, has plenty of experience dealing with the various steps along the supply chain.
For most corporate distribution processes, stores rely on one sole vendor for their products, he said, so when issues arise, stores can’t pivot to alternate vendors to fill their shelves.
On the other hand, smaller businesses like the Camden Wyoming Market have the luxury of using multiple vendors, allowing for backup plans should any be out of a specific product, Mr. Mola said.
Though supermarkets aren’t solely to blame for the extraneous issues that have caused delays along the supply chain, the absence of meat, poultry and seafood products there has been a boon for small business.
“It’s about being innovative and creative,” Mr. Mola said. “Sometimes, you gotta fight for it and be someone your customers can trust.”