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Grocery shortages could stretch into 2022, NC State professor says

Shoppers continue to encounter empty shelves and higher prices at many grocery stores around North Carolina as a result of global supply chain disruptions.

In some cases, the empty shelves and price hikes can seem random. Bananas and peanut butter appear plentiful while Lunchables and fish sticks are harder to find.

N.C. State University professor Rob Handfield, who studies the global supply chain, said there were many reasons why grocers were struggling to keep certain products in stock, and he said many of them could be traced back to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many food producers have had to scale back or shut down production due to COVID outbreaks and labor shortages at their plants.

Meat and poultry processing plants have been especially hard hit in North Carolina. More than 5,400 COVID cases and 28 deaths have been linked to meat and poultry plants around the state since April 2020, and another 430 cases and one death have been tied to other North Carolina food processing plants.

In one case, one of the world's largest hog slaughterhouses , in Bladen County, nearly closed because of a COVID outbreak in April 2020.

Some of the nation's busiest ports are also experiencing labor shortages and other pandemic slowdowns, causing businesses to wait longer for products from overseas. The trucking industry is also experiencing a shortage of drivers.

Handfield said heat waves in the west this summer also affected many crops, and Hurricane Ida and the collapse of Texas' energy grid amid a deep freeze last winter also affected the production of resin needed for plastic packaging.

This means there could be a myriad of reasons for why a single product might not be in stock. Take, for example, Gatorade Zero, which is hard to find in many stores right now.

"It might be truck drivers. It might be packaging — you know, the plastic resins that's used in bottles — there might be a shortage of that. There might just be a shortage of manufacturing and distribution workers," Handfield said.

Consumers should plan for the supply problems to last through the holidays, Handfield said, and possibly get worse.

"The outlook , in my opinion , is prices are going to go up, inflation is going to go up across the board, and I think we're also likely going to see these shortages continue well into 2022," he said.

The supply chain problems extend far beyond the walls of North Carolina grocery stores. About 50% of all North Carolina businesses tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey say they're having trouble getting products from domestic suppliers, and 21% say they're experiencing delays with foreign suppliers.
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