2022 Food supply chains fail owing to COVID

Chicken pieces temporarily unavailable at Coles

As Australia’s 90+ per cent fully vaccinated population headed into 2022, hoping for a break from COVID-related dramas, a new strain of the virus caused another crisis. The hyper-infectious Omicron strain raced through the community. It hit younger age groups hard and soon hospitality businesses found they couldn’t fill their staff rosters. As one Melbourne restaurateur wrote:

COVID! All the rage these days. Every time the phone rang, or we received a message from one of our staff, or just a phone call early in the morning or any other time really, the first thought was always “here we go, someone’s positive and we will have to close for a week”.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Workers across the board were calling in sick by the hundreds, then thousands. It provoked a Code Red alert from the over-stretched ambulance service. And food supply chains, geared to just-in-time ordering, foundered. Some reports suggested that around a third of truck drivers had tested positive for COVID. Gaps began to appear on supermarket shelves, driven, not by panic buying, but by lack of supply.

Customers of Coles’s Flybuys loyalty program received an email from Steven Cain, the CEO of the Coles Group. It began:

Over the last few months, the global and domestic disruption caused by the pandemic has presented us with a number of supply chain challenges. This includes a shortage of wooden pallets and transport workers, and international shipping delays.

More recently, an increase in COVID case numbers in the community has required more people to isolate, which has meant fewer people are available to work in Australia – including in the food industry.

At Coles, this has resulted in disruptions to deliveries from our suppliers, which in turn has impacted the availability of some products in our stores. While our team are working hard to get stock back onto our shelves, we expect it will take several weeks to fully recover.

The email went on to explain the actions Coles was taking to help manage customer demand, including limits on popular products such as mince, sausages and chicken pieces. The shortage of chicken was down to staff absences at food processors, many of which were operating with 50 per cent of their usual staff. And it wasn’t just the supermarkets missing out. KFC was forced to apologise to customers when many of their deep-fried favourites were off the menu.

One of the government responses to the critical staff shortages was changing the rules defining close contacts of positive cases, and even allowing close contacts to continue to work as long as they didn’t have symptoms and had a negative rapid test. They continued to reassure us that the crisis in food supply chains was temporary, perhaps presuming that once everyone caught COVID and recovered things would return to normal. At the time of writing, (mid-January 2022), this remains to be seen.

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