Benjamin Whitely headed to a Safeway supermarket in Washington, DC, on Tuesday to grab some items for dinner. But he was disappointed to find the vegetable bins barren and a sparse selection of turkey, chicken, and milk. “Seems like I missed out on everything,” Whitely, 67, said. “I’m going to have to hunt around for stuff now.” Shortages at US grocery stores have grown more acute in recent weeks as new problems—like the fast-spreading omicron variant and severe weather—have piled on to the supply chain struggles and labor shortages that have plagued retailers since the coronavirus pandemic began, the AP reports. The shortages are widespread, impacting produce and meat as well as packaged goods such as cereal.
And they’re being reported nationwide. US groceries typically have 5% to 10% of their items out of stock at any given time; right now, that unavailability rate is hovering around 15%, according to Consumer Brands Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman. Part of the scarcity consumers are seeing on store shelves is due to pandemic trends that never abated—and are exacerbated by omicron. Americans are eating at home more than they used to, especially since offices and some schools remain closed, and are thus buying more at the grocery store. A historically high deficit of truck drivers that started building before the pandemic also remains a problem. And shipping remains delayed, impacting everything from imported foods to packaging that is printed overseas.
The omicron variant has also taken a toll on food production lines. Sean Connolly, the president and CEO of Conagra Brands, which makes Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Slim Jim meat snacks and other products, told investors last week that supplies from the company's US plants will be constrained for at least the next month due to omicron-related absences. Worker illness is also impacting grocery stores. Stew Leonard Jr. is president and CEO of Stew Leonard's, a supermarket chain that operates stores in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Last week, 8% of his workers—around 200 people—were either out sick or in quarantine. Usually, the level of absenteeism is more like 2%. And weather-related events, from snowstorms in the Northeast to wildfires in Colorado, also have impacted product availability and caused some shoppers to stock up more than usual. (Full story, which indicates it's not time to panic buy, here.)