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Canadians ‘do not need to panic’ about food shortages amid COVID-19, experts say

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Over the last week, Canadian grocery stores have seen an unprecedented amount of panic buying, with hoards of customers stripping the shelves bare of food, cleaning supplies and toilet paper amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A new survey conducted between March 13 and 15 by Dalhousie University and Angus Reid found 71 per cent of Canadians are concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, and that 41 per cent had purchased extra groceries and supplies as a result.

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Sylvain Charlebois, professor at Dalhousie University and scientific director at Agri-Food Analytics Lab — who conducted the survey — said the panic buying indicates consumers are struggling to cope with the pandemic.

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“It’s not every day that you actually have to deal with with a pandemic, and so people felt uneasy,” he said. “And frankly, it wasn’t clear as to what it meant to them and their loved ones, and that’s why they wanted to protect themselves by getting some supplies.

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But is panic buying necessary? Will there be food shortages in Canada? How are grocery stores adapting?

Here’s what experts say.

Should Canadians worry about food shortages?

Marc Fortin, president at the Retail Council of Canada in Quebec, said there are “no issues at this point” when it comes to Canada’s food supply.

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Warehouses are getting their goods delivered, orders are coming in,” he said. “So the question is getting the products back into the store.”

He said the amount of product that would have been sold in approximately four days was sold in a matter of hours.

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Fortin said for the next little while, Canadians may see less variation at the grocery store as workers replenish their stock from warehouses, but that as the weeks go on, all products will be made available.

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He said “Canadians do not need to panic” and that by this weekend stores should be “back to almost normal.”

In a statement on Monday, Galen Weston executive chairman at Loblaw Companies Ltd. too said Canadians should not worry.

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“Our supply chain and store teams are responding to the spikes in volume and quickly getting the most important items back on the shelf,” he said.  “Volumes are already normalizing somewhat, and we are catching up.

He said there are a few items, like hand sanitizer, that may take longer to get back, but said otherwise “we are in good shape.”

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According to Fortin, grocery stores have also been monitoring sales and are increasing inventory by a week or two where necessary.

“We’re looking at where there will be continued velocity or increased velocity, to increase those goods or those products little more than some others, which will have less velocity,” he said.

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How do we get people to stop panic buying?

Mike Von Massow, a professor of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph, said we have likely seen the worst of the panic buying, and that as products are replenished, the panic may wane even more.

I think as people see that there continues to be stock on the shelves there, they’re going to spend less time sort of buying huge quantities,” he said.

And Von Massow said we could see a dip in demand, as people start to use up their stock, instead of buying more.

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But he said governments also play a role in controlling panic buying.

“I think we need governments to say, ‘here’s what we’re doing’ and to continue to express confidence in the availability of food’,” he said.

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Charlebois said it may also be time to implement rationing — limiting the number of certain items people can purchase — at grocery stores.

“Rationing is absolutely appropriate when you’re dealing with a situation like this. We see rationing all the time throughout the year because of promotions,” he said. “It’s important for grocers to discipline demand as much as possible, and this is the one power they have.”

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What if the Canada-U.S. border closes?

One thing that could impact Canada’s food supply is its border and trade with the U.S., Charlebois said.

On Monday, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump said the border will remain open to citizens and for trade and commerce.

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However, Charlebois said that could change at any moment.

I’m more concerned about Washington and how they decide to deal with this pandemic. Washington has been slow coming out of the gate,” he said. “We saw that with Donald Trump‘s address yesterday. You did a complete 180. And so what happens next is really a huge question mark.

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But Fortin said 70 per cent of the goods found in Canadian grocery stores are made in Canada.

“So it’s not going to be a big issue,” he said. “But where we’re going to be concerned is going to be with fresh fruits, vegetables, which a lot of them either transit through the U.S. or are coming from the U.S.

He added, though, that the supply chain has “other tools” in its arsenal in case the border is closed completely.

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“We have amazing retailers in Canada in terms of grocery retailers [and] farmer retailers,” he said. “They will find a way to get the goods into the store to people.
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And, according to Von Massow, even if the situation persists for months it would not have a large impact on Canada’s “robust” food supply chain.

Canadian producers produce lots of good quality food,” he said. “And so I don’t see any reason that that would change.”