U.S. Thanksgiving Pie, Gravy in Danger Due to Supply Chain Woes

Nov. 3, 2021, 6:55 PM

Strains on the U.S. supply chain, including a shortage of workers, means American Thanksgiving gatherings could have to skimp on classics like stuffing.

“Meals, gifts, and celebrations will look wildly different this year as families face an onslaught of high prices, limited stock, and minimal customer service,” said House Agriculture Committee ranking member Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) at a Wednesday hearing.

Jennifer and her husband Steve Collis make Thanksgiving dinner while talking with family in Delaware and Ohio on a ZOOM call on November 26, 2020 in Valrico, Florida.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Grocery retailers and wholesalers are already receiving out-of-stock notices on canned gravy, frozen pies, pastry shells, and stuffing, said Greg Ferrara, president and CEO of the National Grocers Association.

Growing supply chain disruptions are forcing Americans to take a deeper look at the nuanced route their meals travel to get to their plates. The food industry, experiencing the same shortage of workers as the broader economy, is grappling with a shortfall in truck drivers, bakers, and supermarket employees. Backlogged ports and transportation routes have also exacerbated shipping delays.

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“Failure to alleviate the port bottlenecks could mean rancid ingredients,” said Ed Cinco, testifying on behalf of the American Bakers Association.

The Biden administration has taken a series of steps to alleviate the supply chain congestion, such as providing funding to international partners to simplify customs and clearance procedures, and facilitating 24/7 operations at two southern California ports.

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Several trade groups called for Congress to address the problems by enacting a measure (H.R. 4996) that would tackle maritime transportation issues. Reps. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who introduced the bill, call it the first major update of federal regulations for the international ocean shipping industry in over two decades.

Trucker, Grocer Staffing Shortfall

Trade groups are also calling for federal policies to help with the worker shortage.

Ferrara, Cinco, and Jon Samson of the American Trucking Associations all said the forthcoming federal Covid-19 vaccine mandate for employers — which hasn’t taken effect yet — is scaring away workers.

The trucking industry is short 80,000 drivers, Samson said, adding that more than 80% of U.S. communities rely solely on truckers to meet their freight transportation needs, moving perishable food to grocery shelves and school kitchens. He said underfunded infrastructure also hurts his industry.

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The baking sector’s aging workforce is clocking out for good, Cinco, who works at Schwebel Baking Co., said. High levels of turnover at his company are caused by “a need to run 24/7,” he said.

Grocers and wholesalers are also struggling to fill jobs, with remaining employees described as “mentally and physically exhausted” by Ferrara. Supermarkets have adjusted with shorter hours and boosted wages.

One silver lining: Because much of U.S. food is grown domestically, bottlenecks at the ports have largely spared consumers’ grocery lists, he said.

Ferrara warned American consumers against panic buying, which he called the “greatest risk to the availability of food” — even more so than the current supply chain issues.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloombergindustry.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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