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  • Peter Rubinstein

Why grocery shelves won't be empty for long


In the earliest days of coronavirus, visiting a local supermarket felt like a bad dream to many. Stepping inside and seeing checkout lines three times their usual length, and quickly realising that you weren’t the only one who felt it was time to stock up. Shouldering past the other shoppers toward the pasta aisle or frozen section, and turning the corner in shock to find rows and rows of empty shelves.

As news of Covid-19 has grabbed the world’s attention, our grocery stores, usually bursting with every item we expect, have quickly been left bare by shoppers panic-buying toilet paper, water, rice, beans, pasta, bread and frozen foods. Images circulated online of empty shelves in late January, leading buyers to queue up ahead of stores’ openings and run essential items dry on e-shopping sites like Amazon Fresh. Compared to the same week in 2019, sales of US sales of dried beans grew 37%, rice 25% and pasta 10%.

Now, as April begins and shoppers continue to bulk-buy, grocery chains have jumped into action. Retailers have united with manufacturers, warehouse workers and supply chain operators to implement emergency policies to meet these skyrocketing demands. But even amid the uncertainty − and despite the seeming scarcity − experts across the food system are looking to reassure us against what could be shoppers’ ultimate fear: that an overburdened food supply chain could lead to a food shortage.

“I can definitely understand people’s concern. Whenever they go into the grocery store, they’re used to seeing everything… but fundamentally, when you think of food production and distribution, food is produced at a high rate right now,” says Lowell Randel, vice president of the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA) in the US.

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