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U.S. food suppliers are having trouble keeping shelves stocked

A grocery store worker stocks the produce section.
Food distributors say a tight labor market and ongoing supply chain disruptions are hampering their ability to meet demand.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Some of the largest U.S. food distributors are reporting difficulties in fulfilling orders as a lack of workers weighs on the supply chain.

Sysco Corp., North America’s largest wholesale food distributor, is turning away customers in some areas where demand is exceeding capacity. The Houston company also said prices for key goods such as chicken, pork and paper products for takeout packaging are climbing amid tight supplies. In particular, production has slowed for high-demand, labor-intensive cuts such as bacon, ribs, wings and tenders, Sysco said.

“There are certain areas across the country that are more challenged by the labor shortage and our volume of orders is regularly exceeding our capacity,” Sysco Chief Executive Kevin Hourican said in a letter to clients this month. “This has, unfortunately, led to service disruptions for some of our customers.”

An analysis from DecaData, which tracks retailer transactions with shoppers and manufacturers, shows that retailers are bumping up against manufacturer capacity as they stockpile ahead of the holiday season. In July, the incidence of suppliers limiting or putting a cap on orders from customers was more than double what it was in January, its data show.

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Another major distributor, United Natural Foods Inc., is having trouble getting food to stores on time. The company said the labor shortages, as well as delays for some imported goods — including cheese, coconut water and spices — are causing the problems.

“We anticipate additional supplier challenges in the short term with gradual improvement through the fall and winter,” a United Natural Foods representative said. The company’s top priority is to support customers “by working diligently to recover and bring their shelves back to normal inventory levels as quickly as possible.”

Employers in California and the U.S. are scrambling to fill jobs as the dust from the pandemic begins to settle. Just don’t call it a labor shortage.

U.S. companies across industries are reporting a dearth of workers amid sweetened unemployment benefits, stimulus payments and a pandemic that has reduced the appeal of in-person employment. Sysco is aggressively hiring warehouse workers and truck drivers and offering referral and sign-on bonuses along with retention money for current staff.

The entire food sector is seeing “massive labor shortages,” said Benjamin Walker, senior vice president of sales, marketing and merchandising at Baldor Specialty Foods, a New York distributor. “Service levels are the lowest I’ve seen in my 16-year career, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going away anytime soon.”

Finding truck drivers is “next to impossible,” he said, and freight costs are rising daily. The company’s orders are arriving late and consequently facing delays in being sent to customers. On the outbound side, on-time deliveries are still above 50% but have fallen from the usual rate of more than 90%.

“We all thought it would be over by now. It’s just one thing after another,” he said. “This is going to be the norm for a while.”


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