Canadians will likely experience shortages of some food items and increased prices as the Omicron COVID-19 variant snags supply chains and a vaccine mandate takes effect for cross-border truckers, according to industry experts.
However, they say that Canadians should not worry about food availability and that no one needs to panic buy.
“There is food on the grocery shelves,” said Michelle Wasylyshen, spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada, which represents big-box grocery stores in the country.
She said, though, that there could be shortages of certain products, such as soups, cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables, and meats.
Some Canadians may have noticed empty shelves recently, but Wasylyshen said that is a result of the winter storm that hit Canada over the previous week.
While weather plays a role in shipment delays, other, long-term issues still persist that has the retail council “concerned,” Wasylyshen said.
These include labour shortages from absenteeism and the Omicron COVID-19 wave, which has caused workers to have to isolate and impacted operations.
Fortunately, British Columbia’s fifth wave of the pandemic appears to have peaked and Ontario’s will likely by the end of the month, so more workers are expected to return, Wasylyshen said.
Trucker vaccine mandate impact
Another hit likely to impact supply is the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for truckers on both sides of the border.
Canada’s mandate came into effect on Jan. 15, while the U.S.’s did a week later, on Jan. 22.
How great an impact the mandates will have on grocery stores is yet to be seen, but Dalhousie University food distribution professor Sylvain Charlebois said on The Roy Green Show that Canada imports $21 billion worth of food from the U.S. every year, and 70 per cent of that comes across the border on wheels.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) estimates as many as 32,000 Canadian and American cross-border truck drivers may be taken off the roads due to the mandates. That represents 20 per cent of the 160,000 truckers total and is in addition to nearly 23,000 drivers the industry was short before the mandate, according to StatCan and Trucking HR Canada.
“It’s hard to believe that there won’t be any disturbances,” Charlebois said.
Since winter has put a pause on many Canadian crops, we rely heavily on the U.S. for fruits and vegetables, he said, making our food system at this time “way more vulnerable.”
Charlebois said the impact of the mandate on grocery stores will vary.
He said most larger grocery companies operate their own fleets and will likely be fine because they probably already have their own vaccine mandates.
However, smaller grocers may be more affected because they don’t operate their own fleets and are not “huge customers for transportation companies.”
With a reduced amount of drivers, companies will have to choose who gets deliveries, Charlebois said.
Trucking executive Dan Einwechter of Challenger Motor Freight Inc. in Cambridge, Ont., has already sounded the alarm on the mandate, telling Reuters that consumers will see that “there’s not as many choices on the shelves” within two weeks.
However, Gary Sands, senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, which represents about 6,900 businesses across Canada, said some statements from truckers have been alarmist and are “overstating the case.”
“When you walk into grocery stores you might see certain areas are bare, where the product has not yet arrived, but it’s coming,” he said.
He did say that there have been product delays, shortages and some products not arriving at all, and warns that supply shortages are “more acutely felt” in smaller communities.
The trucker vaccine mandate has compounded the issue, Sands said.
When there is less supply but the demand remains the same, it’s almost certain that food prices will increase, Sands said.
He is already seeing price increases of about 25 per cent for fruit and vegetables, and 18-20 per cent for dairy, and warns consumers to definitely not expect any promotions for the time being.
Price increases are necessary to offset the cost of goods beset by labour shortages, as small grocers often face tight margins. If they don’t increase prices, they could go out of business.
“The big watch for consumers in the weeks ahead is just going to be the impact on prices,” Sands said.
That increase comes as Canada faces unprecedented inflation, with the country’s inflation rate hitting a 30-year high of 4.8 per cent in December.
Economists have said the vaccine mandate for truckers will keep the prices higher for longer.
Sands doesn’t predict any relief for prices until the pressure on labour decreases, which he said could be helped by more access to rapid test kits to decrease the time workers isolate.
Nevertheless, Sands was hopeful that shortages will be temporary and said there is no reason to panic or stockpile as was seen at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 when toilet paper was piled high in shopping carts, even if consumers are seeing some bare shelves now.
Instead, Sands recommends shoppers adjust their habits, such as going one week without a certain product like bananas or visiting more than one store.
“This is going to be a bit of a challenge the next three, four, five weeks,” Sands said. “But we’re going to get out of it. The Canadian supply chain is strong.”
— with files from Reuters