US stores and supermarkets might see shortages for the next year and a half, supply chain experts say

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Shelves reserved for Perdue chicken lie empty at a ShopRite supermarket on April 24, 2020 in Plainview, New York. Getty Images/Bruce Bennett
  • Global supply chain disruptions and unprecedented demand have triggered shortages in household and grocery items in recent months.
  • Though things should mostly stabilise by the summertime, experts told Business Insider some minor shortages could persist throughout the next year and a half.
  • Until a vaccine can prevent widespread transmission of the novel coronavirus, the supply chain will be susceptible to disruptions – particularly when it comes to factory and farm workers.
  • Experts are confident that the US food supply is robust, and emphasised that there is no reason to panic – but some consumers may experience more inconvenience when they shop.
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American consumers have endured shortages of toilet paper, household cleaning products, and even grocery items like meat or flour in recent weeks as the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted global supply chains.

Though experts told Business Insider they expect the situation to largely return to normal by the summertime, they also said minor shortages of certain items could hit consumers in waves over the next year or so – just like the coronavirus is expected to.

Until a vaccine can prevent widespread transmission, the supply chain will be susceptible to disruptions, according to Patrick Penfield, a supply chain management professor at Syracuse University.

That’s because these industries are dependent on workers who can’t always socially distance themselves from their colleagues, or who haven’t always been given protective equipment like masks and gloves, or even basic benefits like health insurance or paid sick leave.

For instance, factory workers and farm workers are all essential in maintaining supply chains. If they get sick en masse, those factories will have to temporarily close and decontaminate.

This has already happened in meat-processing plants across the country, sickening at least 1,800 workers at major players like Tyson, Smithfield Foods, and JBS and forcing them to close.

America’s food supply is strong, but consumers may have to get used to less variety

Empty grocery shelves
Shelves in the flour section are largely empty save for a few organic options at the Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough on Friday, March 27, 2020. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Overall, experts said they were confident that the national food supply is strong enough to feed all Americans, and emphasised that there is no reason to panic – it’s just that some consumers might experience more inconvenience when they shop.

“We’re still robust. We’re still ok, we’re still going to be eating, we’re still going to have things, but just the variety that we’re accustomed to probably is not going to be there,” Penfield said. “We have a resilient economy and a resilient supply chain, and we’re going to be able to get through this. There’s just going to be issues where we can’t find certain things probably for the next year and a half.”

These shortages and disruptions might even be good for the US in the long run, according to Seckin Ozkul, a supply chain management expert at the University of South Florida.

The pandemic has been a giant, global experiment in how to rapidly diversify supply chains so that entire industries don’t get cut off from raw materials just because factories shut down in China, he said. Now, manufacturers are getting more creative and resourceful in how they source their raw materials and create their products.

“We had seen regional, we had seen national disasters and destruction, but we had never seen a full global [disruption] at the same time – everyone shot down at the same time,” Ozkul said. “So now we want to look at this so that the next time it happens we can be better prepared and we can actually take the necessary precautions so we don’t see the impact as much as we see it now.”