Food shortages: what’s really going on?

18th January 2022 | Alison Turner
Supermarket shortages

Empty supermarket shelves, product limits, missing items in online grocery orders and – gasp! – no KFC. Is Australia running out of food? Not at all. We have plenty of food to go around. The problem isn’t a shortage of food – it’s a shortage of people. We take a look at the issues that have led to the current food shortages impacting supermarkets and food retailers. Plus, we offer advice on what you can do about it (ie, don’t panic).

When it comes to fruit and veg, NSW’s peak agricultural body says there’s plenty of fresh food in the field. It’s now calling for calm amid growing supply chain concerns.

NSW Farmers President James Jackson says there are good production levels of fresh food despite challenging weather in the past few months.

“Food scarcity is not actually a problem in Australia,” he says. “But the pictures you see on the nightly news would have you believe there’s not a single cucumber or head of lettuce left. However, our growers are sending plenty of produce down to Sydney markets.”

The big challenge for the agricultural sector now is sick workers and a lack of access to rapid antigen tests (RATs). These issues combined have led to broader supply chain issues.

Rapid antigen test
A nationwide shortage of RATs is wreaking havoc along the food supply chain.

RAT race

With numerous reports of worker shortages as Omicron sweeps the nation, peak farming bodies are asking state and federal governments and the big supermarket chains to urgently look at ways to supply farmers with RATs. Then they can keep sick workers at home and healthy workers in the fields, harvesting fruit and vegetables and managing livestock.

“If farmers can’t get food out of their fields, it won’t get to supermarkets,” Jackson says. “What’s needed now is expedited supply of RATs so farmers can keep food the flowing.”

Victorian Farmers Federation President Emma Germano says the enormous rise of COVID cases in Victoria is putting mounting pressure on the state’s critical food supply chains.

“The less workers there are to maintain supply chains, the more vulnerable it becomes,” she says. “This directly threatens our food security. Farmers can’t provide the food needed to feed the country without the means to transport it via our essential supply chains.

“We warned both the federal and Victorian governments in October last year of this very scenario. To see this eventuate months later is incredibly frustrating. We need to have reliable access to RATs, and decision-makers must prioritise this.”

Meat shortages in supermarkets
From processors to butchers and supermarkets, the meat industry is struggling to maintain supply.

Until we meat again

Those in the meat processing sectors and workers in transport and handling are also struggling. Two weeks ago, the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) urgently called for federal and state governments to protect vulnerable food supply chains across Australia. Surging Omicron cases in the community are forcing essential workers to stay home. Businesses have had to temporarily close or operate at very low staffing levels.

AMIC has warned that there will be a worsening supply shortage looming unless urgent guarantees are put in place to shore up meat production and supply capacity.

“Multiple meat processing establishments are now having to temporarily shut their doors or operate at very low capacities due to Omicron,” says AMIC CEO Patrick Hutchinson.

Large chicken meat processors are being crippled by workforce shortages
Large chicken meat processors are being crippled by workforce shortages.

Chicken stricken

Under the national COVID protocol, people are unable to come to work for at least seven days if someone in their family or household tests positive for COVID. This has led to an unprecedented wave of staffing unpredictability in the meat industry. In some instances, under 30 percent of rostered workers have turned up for work.

Australia’s biggest chicken supplier, Ingham’s, has been severely impacted by staff shortages. This has led to a scarcity of fresh chicken products at supermarkets. It’s also the reason why fast food chains like KFC have been forced to cut back to a reduced menu.

The Australian Chicken Meat Federation (ACMF) says the chicken supply situation continues to deteriorate. All businesses in the supply chain are experiencing increasing staff shortages. The number of birds unable to be processed also continues to grow.

“Most major processors are operating with a reduction of up to 50 percent of staff,” the ACMF said in a statement. “This is significantly impacting our ability to produce and process chickens and will continue to do so for the immediate future.”

As a result, the range of chicken products available has changed. Some products will be in short supply. Products that are the most challenging to supply are those most labour-intensive to produce. These include cut-up, de-boned, skinless and value-added products. Less labour-intensive products such as whole chicken should continue to be available.

Fresh food shortages
Slim pickings in the fresh produce section.

Shortages set to continue

While worker shortages are causing problems across the food supply chain, it’s most critical in transport and distribution. Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) CEO Michael Rogers says some businesses in this sector have seen a halving in their workforce in one day.

“People aren’t turning up because they have COVID, are close contacts or are concerned about COVID,” he says. “This is affecting harvesting, packing, transport and distribution.”

Indications from Australia’s largest food retailers are that there’ll be less availability of food over the coming weeks due to workforce shortages created by a rise in COVID cases.

AMIC, ACMF and AFPA, along with other food and grocery bodies and the transport industry, recently called for governments to prioritise food chain production and supply. Public Health Order exemptions for those that are asymptomatic close contacts, access to RATs and prioritised PCR testing would allow food workers to keep feeding the nation.

Last week, the federal government responded. On January 10, National Cabinet endorsed the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee interim guidance on permissions and restrictions for workers in food and grocery supply. This will ease isolation rules for essential food supply workers. It will allow those who are deemed close contacts to return to work if they have no symptoms and are fully vaccinated. However, the issues surrounding access to RATs and prioritised PCR testing and turnarounds remain a challenge.

Food shortages at major supermarkets
Workforce shortages in major supermarket distribution centres are leading to empty shelves.

The Big Four

While changing rules around isolation requirements will certainly ease some of the pressure on our food industry, the problem won’t go away overnight. It’s also highlighted a glaring problem in our national food supply chain… And it’s all about the big supermarkets.

“We’ve been warning government and the big retailers of the problems in their supply chain,” Jackson says. “And yet here we are. Empty shelves at supermarkets while greengrocers and farmers’ markets are fully stocked.”

Australia has the most concentrated supermarket sector in the world. There’s a 70 percent market share for the largest two chains; a 90 percent market share in the hands of just four supermarkets. However, COVID has brought these enormous supply chains to their knees in recent weeks. And Jackson says it was an entirely avoidable situation.

“A year ago, the ACCC’s Perishable Goods Inquiry warned that in most perishable agricultural goods markets, there are many farmers, but few processors or wholesalers, and even fewer major retailers,” Jackson says. “What we’re seeing now is a direct result of this market imbalance. The fact that online grocery orders from major retailers are now being delivered by independent taxi drivers reinforces the resilience of smaller agile businesses to deliver when big and monopolised systems are on their knees.”

Farmers' markets are still brimming with super-fresh produce
Farmers’ markets are still brimming with super-fresh produce.

The solution is local

While big supermarket chains flounder, our farmers’ markets are flourishing. Localised food operations like farmers’ markets have far fewer links in their supply chains. This means they can source food more quickly and have more flexibility to adapt when problems occur. At a recent visit to Byron Farmers’ Market, Eativity spoke with Market Manager Tom Carey about the current food shortage crisis affecting our supermarkets.

“Right now is a great example of why local food is so important,” Carey says. “We’re getting flogged here because there’s no food at the supermarket. A lot of customers who would generally shop in the supermarket have come here instead. Either because they didn’t want to shop inside with COVID being rife, or because of concerns about food security.”

Farmers’ markets are already a popular shopping spot for many Australians. This popularity has only grown over the past two years, as COVID waves and supermarket shortages continue to occur. But while once it was toilet paper, now it’s fresh fruit and veg.

“One of the reasons why they’re low on produce is not just the supermarkets themselves,” Carey says. “It’s the whole supply chain. It’s getting produce to market, then having it packed, then getting it distributed to the supermarkets. Whereas here, all this produce has been harvested in the last few days. If you’ve got your own food growing in your own local area, you’ll always have access to food. It’s simple.”

Supermarket shortages
Only buy what you need, and if the big supermarkets don’t have it, try smaller local stores and markets.

Food shortages: what you can do

Food shortages are likely to continue for several more weeks at least, with case numbers set to peak at the end of January. So what can you do to ensure you and your family have enough food? While shopping at farmers’ markets and greengrocers is a great start, consumers also need to avoid panic buying. Stockpiling huge amounts of product will only further exacerbate supply shortages. It can also lead to a greater amount of food waste, which is already at epic levels in Australia. We waste around $20 billion worth a year.

Some experts recommend consumers buy three weeks’ worth of food. However, this simply isn’t feasible for perishable products. Instead, the best thing to do is stay calm, shop local and shop around. Check your fridge, freezer and pantry before you go shopping, and only buy what you need. We’ll get through this, Australia. And hopefully, the lessons we’ve learned from this latest food crisis will ensure it never happens again.

To find a farmers’ market, go to the Australian Farmers’ Market Association website.