If you’ve tried to buy frozen french fries at the supermarket — any brand, any flavor — you were probably confronted with empty shelves in the store freezer. Why that’s so is a tale of supply and demand, and how the U.S. food supply chain is so vulnerable to disruptions.
It’s especially perplexing because potato farmers are plowing under thousands of tons of potatoes because they can’t sell them and buyers have no place to put them.
The problem is that schools, restaurants, and large companies who make up the bulk of frozen french fry orders in the country are closed or not making nearly as much as they did pre-pandemic. And that’s trouble for a stable supply.
The main hurdle is the extra-large size of foodservice packages that are meant for kitchens that turn out dozens if not hundreds of meals each day.
“Think Costco, but bigger,” said International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA) CEO Mark Allen, referring to the oversized products sold at warehouse retailer Costco Wholesale Corp.
Nondescript foodservice packaging also does not have the ingredient and nutrition labels required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the bar codes needed in grocery checkout lanes.
The FDA says it will temporarily relax label regulations but that will take time.
Like toilet paper manufacturers who were faced with severe shortages because of hoarding, frozen french fry makers are scrambling to fill the gap.
Kraft Heinz Co’s Ore-Ida, the main producer of frozen fries for supermarkets, is rushing to bolster supplies.
“Our Ore-Ida factory is running at full capacity to keep up with demand,” Kraft spokesman Michael Mullen said.
At the same time, major fast-food french fry suppliers McCain Foods, J.R. Simplot Co and Lamb Weston Holdings Inc are canceling potato orders.
Fast-food suppliers’ freezers are full of frozen fries, hash browns and potato skins and their storage sheds are packed with potatoes, farmers and experts told Reuters.
Those supplies are useless because they aren’t packaged and labeled for consumer sales.
The Potato Council says there’s up to $1.3 billion in product stuck in the supply pipeline. Until schools and restaurants reopen, it’s not likely that the bottlenecks will be fixed anytime soon.
“It’s a huge challenge. Nobody was prepared. Nobody could imagine that this could happen,” Rabobank food analyst JP Frossard said.
Grocery consultants and retailers told Reuters that foodservice products like toilet paper, cleaning supplies and meat have found their way into the retail channel, while many others have not.
It’s strange to walk down aisles of stores and see items missing from shelves that you wouldn’t think of being hoarded. Indeed, it may be a bottleneck somewhere in the supply chain that’s holding up deliveries to retail outlets. The only thing that will fix that is time — and reopening the country for business.
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