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Coronavirus: Food shortages unlikely despite Canadians’ grocery panic, experts say

Photos of people hoarding goods amid COVID-19 outbreak go viral on Twitter
WATCH: Photos of people hoarding goods amid COVID-19 outbreak go viral

Empty shelves. Lines of shopping carts snaked through aisles. “Sorry for the inconvenience” signs posted where towers of toilet paper should be.

Canadians are stocking up amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. While the buying isn’t totally unnecessary, worrying about a shortage of shipments is, experts agree.

“There’s no evidence of shortages,” said Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada.

“It’s normal to misinterpret seeing empty shelves and assuming that’s because the products are no longer available. In 99 per cent of the cases, it’s simply because the retailer has sold out of the quantity the store had at that time.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus pandemic takes over daily lives around the globe as fear mounts

The challenge grocers are facing is rethinking replenishment strategies. Brisebois said store managers are likely doing this on the fly.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Panic buying causes toilet paper shortage at Costco store in Georgia
Coronavirus outbreak: Panic buying causes toilet paper shortage at Costco store in Georgia

“Grocers know how much they sell of a product in their store for a period of time, be it March or April. That’s how they know how much to stock based on product and region,” she said.

“So based on prior patterns, they may have thought 80 per cent of a product would be sold over five days in a certain region of the country, and then all of a sudden, those assumptions based on analytics are thrown out the window because of these unusual circumstances.”

Toilet paper and disinfectant wipes flying off shelves
Toilet paper and disinfectant wipes flying off shelves

Brisebois said improvements in supply chain management and logistics in Canadian retail over the years has the industry “well equipped” to serve customers through this situation, but she acknowledged that it could change at any moment.

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“Truly, it’s a day-by-day analysis,” she said.

“It depends on decisions from government officials that day, provincial or federal. It all has an impact on how consumers are planning their days and their shopping.”

One factor that could change how shelves are stocked stems from the U.S.-Canada border. On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump closed the door on foreign nationals who have recently been in Europe, where the virus has proliferated. The dramatic travel suspension has raised concerns about the fate of the shared border and the possible ramifications on the crucial American market. He upped the measure one day later to include Britain and Ireland.

READ MORE: EU slams Trump’s ban on travel between U.S. and Europe over coronavirus

“If something happens to that border, it will be a completely different situation,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

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Until then, the mad dash for dry pasta and canned beans is merely Canadians’ “inner-panic-buying button” getting the better of them, Charlebois said.

“This week was a critical week in the pandemic; it’s become real in people’s lives,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is part of an evolution in the consumer psyche. You’ll see panic-buying, but it’ll calm down a bit as people rationalize.”

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Toronto-area grocery stores swamped with shoppers amid COVID-19 pandemic fears
Toronto-area grocery stores swamped with shoppers amid COVID-19 pandemic fears

The extra shopping was triggered back in February after Canada’s health minister suggested that people consider stockpiling food and medicine. Other health officials, local and provincial, echoed the recommendation in the weeks that followed but emphasized that having supplies on hand is important for all kinds of unexpected emergencies — not just pandemics.

“In Canada, only about 25 per cent of households have enough provisions to survive autonomously for about four days, which is not a whole lot,” he said.

“But Canadians shouldn’t worry about a food shortage. This virus has been spreading for weeks. It’s given supply chains plenty of time to prepare, adapt and focus.”

READ MORE: People hoard essentials as coronavirus fears rise, but experts say panic buying isn’t necessary

At Ontario’s main food terminal, there is cautiousness but no cause for concern, said Steve Bamford, president of the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association.

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The terminal supplies more than 95 per cent of produce to independent grocers in Ontario. Bamford said it has seen an increase in demand between 25 to 40 per cent in recent days, likely because of the pandemic fears, “but we’re not selling out to the walls like you’re seeing at supermarkets.”

“No one seems to know what volume is required right now or what will even happen in the province, so everyone is being cautious. We’re trying to mitigate any potential losses, but we don’t believe we’ll have a shortage at all,” he said.

“We still have a duty to do. There is ample supply of almost every item down here at the food terminal today.”

On Friday, Ontario’s health minister reassured residents that the food supply in the province is plentiful and that deliveries will continue to reach stores on a regular basis during the pandemic.

COVID-19: Concerns over virus leads to empty shelves at stores
COVID-19: Concerns over virus leads to empty shelves at stores

But it hasn’t stopped people from emptying shelves and lining up for hours at grocery stores across the country.

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Social media was set ablaze in recent days with photos of people buying up meats, canned goods, paper towels and toilet paper, leaving bare shelves in the wake.

The hottest commodity so far? Toilet paper, it seems.

Despite the push for paper, Canada is nowhere near a shortage of sheets.

“Be calm and don’t panic — toilet paper is on its way,” said Dino Bianco, chief executive officer of Kruger Products, which produces tissue products in Canada under brands like Scotties, Cashmere and SpongeTowels.

“Our plants are producing 24-7; we’ve got all the raw materials we need to make it. What you’re seeing now is just a supply lag. When things spike that fast, it’s hard to react, but products are being shipped out as we speak.”

READ MORE: What does it take to recover from coronavirus? It depends, experts say

Canada isn’t the only country feeling the squeeze from consumers preparing for the pandemic.

In Australia, the biggest grocery chain clamped down on the toilet paper panic, limiting purchases to four packs per shoppers buying in store or online. A limit on milk, eggs, rice and disinfecting soap products has also been imposed. The U.K.’s biggest supermarket chain, Tesco, assured British shoppers that it can withstand the shopper panic over the novel coronavirus and will keep shelves stocked. Some Canadian stores have placed limits on items, but at this point, it’s at the discretion of the store.

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Coronavirus outbreak: WHO official says ‘trajectory’ of virus depends on each country’s response
Coronavirus outbreak: WHO official says ‘trajectory’ of virus depends on each country’s response

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said new measures to support families will be rolled out “in the coming days” as part of a “fiscal stimulus package.”

“Our focus right now is on ensuring that Canadians have the resources and the money to not have to stress about rent and about groceries and about child care and elder care at a time where they’re also very worried about their health and their family’s health,” he said.

Until then, if you want to avoid the lineups and panic-inducing empty shelves, Charlebois says try your stockpiling online.

“It’s a luxury we didn’t have a few years ago. It’s a luxury we didn’t have during SARS, really. It’s convenient, and you’re also not exposing yourself and your loved ones to unwanted risks.”

 With files from Reuters
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