Eight things your supermarket might have secretly run out of

·7-min read
A shopper looks at empty shelves in the Co-Op supermarket, Harpenden - Reuters
A shopper looks at empty shelves in the Co-Op supermarket, Harpenden - Reuters

In the current climate, the last thing anyone wishes to do is spark a rash of panic-buying. Goodness knows we’ve quite enough of that at the moment, what with all the chaos at the petrol pumps.

“Don’t panic-buy,” we are told – but we all know there are no three words more likely to make us do exactly that.

So I hope you’ll be wise and won’t do the same with the list of goods below. But the truth is you probably don’t need me to tell you it’s been tricky to purchase certain items lately, with some supermarkets reportedly instructing staff to “overface” shelves by moving sparse items to the front to make them look more plentiful. According to a YouGov survey published earlier this month, more than half of Britons had experienced in-store shortages during the previous weeks.

For decades we’ve taken for granted that things wouldn’t ever run out. Just-in-time supply chains worked so well that many of us didn’t even know what they were until recently. Then Covid struck, and empty shelves helped reinforce the sense the apocalypse was upon us. How else to describe those chilling 2020 scenes of trolleys laden with loo roll? (Of which, by the way, there was no real shortage.)

Now, in the autumn of 2021, despite no actual scarcity in most of the goods in question, we find ourselves tossed upon a perfect storm of several other sub-optimal factors: labour shortfalls across food and drink businesses, HGV driver vacancies and CO2 shortages. Both the pandemic and Brexit have been blamed for disruption to supply chains, while rises in wholesale gas prices have prompted halts to factory production of the food-grade carbon dioxide used for hundreds of products. Sea freight costs, meanwhile, are up tenfold, according to Bloomberg.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, says: “HGV drivers are the glue which hold our supply chains together. Without them, we are unable to move food and other goods around the country. Currently, the UK faces a shortfall of around 90,000 HGV drivers and it is consumers who ultimately suffer the consequences. The Government’s new visa scheme is a step in the right direction but is insufficient in size and scope to prevent Christmas disruption.”

As one food industry insider says, there aren’t shortages as such, more “sporadic limitations on choice and availability of products, with certain products affected depending on driving routes.”

That said, here are some of the products that, in some parts of the country, we can no longer easily source whenever we want them:

Cheese

“The cheese aisle is mostly empty,” reports one Tesco shopper in Redbridge, North East London. Words guaranteed to strike fear into your heart.

In March, Somerset cheesemaker Wyke Farms set up a “cheese emergency” email for European Union supermarkets experiencing shortages of British cheese following Brexit. A dairy industry source suggests any empty cheese shelves are likely to be due to HGV driver shortages leading to delivery problems in some, but not all, areas. “We know some retail stores were perfectly well stocked with milk recently and some others weren’t,” she says.

Plasters

Blister plasters specifically, according to a friend who has searched for them high and low. Perhaps this is because we have all been forced to walk everywhere, now we can’t fill up our cars.

More seriously, pharmacists warned last week that medicines are now either arriving late or not at all, as the supply chain crisis has started to hit them too. The problem is expected to worsen as demand is higher during the winter months.

Organic whole free range chicken

If you want one from Sainsbury’s, it’s available where I am for £19.37. But in Battersea, south London, a friend reports she could not order one from Ocado. “I couldn’t even get thighs!” she notes. This may be just a taster of things to come. Kate Martin, of the Traditional Farm Fresh Turkey Association, warned yesterday that the UK could face a national shortage of turkeys in the run-up to Christmas. Why? “Because there have been fewer turkeys placed on the ground, because the big processors know that they will not get them processed.” This, she says, “is 100 per cent caused by a labour shortage... European labour is no longer available to us.”

Tonic water

“There appears to be a Sheffield-wide shortage of tonic water,” tweeted an alarmed chap called Robbie at the weekend. But the problem does not seem to be South Yorkshire-specific.

When another customer asked on Twitter last month: “Can any of the supermarkets explain why there is a shortage of sparkling waters, flavoured sparkling water, tonic water etc?” Tesco duly responded: “We have deliveries arriving at our stores every day, and while there’s plenty to go around, we are experiencing some disruption due to an industry-wide shortage of HGV drivers. This has led to temporary low availability on some products but we’re working hard to get shelves fully stocked.” Could it also be that G&T fans, alarmed by comments made last week by The British Soft Drinks Association about how some manufacturers “only have a few days of CO2 supply left”, got first in line for their favourite mixer?

Petcare

This, according to The Grocer, is consistently one of the worst-affected categories. It’s a supply problem, Jonathan Kittow, director at Simply Supply Chain, told the retail magazine. “There are a number of pet suppliers that are still struggling to keep up with demand.”

A demand that no doubt soared when every other person in Britain bought a lockdown pet out of boredom.

Cucumbers

In a recent letter to MPs, the Cucumber Growers Association warned the cost of growing crops in the UK had soared by 300 per cent compared with pre-pandemic. “Following the combined impact of Brexit and pandemic restrictions the industry is facing a level of [staff] shortages never seen before, with members regularly reporting up to 40 per cent of permanent roles remaining unfilled and retention rates as low as 50 per cent,” it said.

Beef mince

Once again, the CO2 issue collides with the labour shortages to result in very real difficulties when it comes to Bolognese sauce.

“I struggled to get beef mince for a lasagne the other day,” a friend reports. “It was very annoying as I had bought all the other ingredients, then Ocado didn’t have the beef. Eventually found some in M&S, bought the last few packs.”

The CO2 shortage isn’t quite as much of a problem for beef and lamb as it is for pork, but it does mean shelf life is shorter on products like mince. That’s not the main issue though.

“There’s a systemic shortage of labour in [meat] processing factories,” explains John Royle, chief livestock adviser at the National Farmers’ Union. “Their processors are working to 70 per cent of their capacity because they haven’t got the people to do the work. The product is there, it’s available on the farm, but they just can’t process it.”

Quorn Vegan Fishless Fingers

A vegan friend complains he’s been unable to buy any in the shops for weeks now. Yet when he went online, he discovered a packet of eight could be his for £40. According to a spokesperson for Quorn: “Like the rest of the food industry, we are experiencing challenges relating to road haulage, but you can still find our Quorn Vegan Fishless Fingers on sale for £2.50 at leading supermarkets." So there are still plenty of fishless fingers in the sea.

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