These Pandemic Food Shortages Caught Everyone By Surprise. Here’s How They Happened
The stories behind 12 seemingly random shortages, from Tostitos Multigrain Scoops to Caffeine-Free Coke.
As COVID-19 spread and communities began enacting stay-at-home orders last spring, many of us went straight to the grocery store and filled our carts with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, eggs, bread, milk, canned goods, and just about any other household staples we could get our hands on.
But as that initial wave of fear and panic-buying subsided certain shelves remained—or became—curiously empty. Over the last year or so, many seemingly random foods disappeared overnight or were unusually difficult to find. But why?
It all boils down to simple supply and demand. When the pandemic hit, we started preparing nearly all of our meals at home, which led to a huge spike in demand at grocery stores. And even after the initial frenetic pantry-stocking/hoarding period, we continued eating mostly at home for months, which led to fundamental—and largely unexpected—shifts in our shopping and consumption habits.
Up and down the supply chain, suppliers were caught off-guard by our unprecedented hunger for certain foods. They quickly shifted to making only their most popular, core products and put their less-popular, niche variations on the backburner, which made them difficult or impossible to find.
"Whenever demand is volatile and difficult to predict, and you're short of capacity, then you want to minimize the time your equipment is going through changeovers and switching from making one product to another," says Ananth Iyer, professor of supply chain and operations management at Purdue University and director of the university's Global Supply Chain Management Initiative. "Companies basically returned to their roots, used their capacity efficiently, and decreased variety in order to keep the shelves full of products."
Meanwhile, producers had to quickly pivot from supplying bulk ingredients to now-shuttered restaurants and schools to shipping household-sized items to grocery stores. Manufacturers couldn't make enough glass jars and aluminum cans, which trickled down into our ability to buy pickles, soda, and beer. COVID-19 spread among factory and processing workers, which led to shutdowns and decreased production. A shortage of shipping containers and truck drivers created logistical nightmares throughout the supply chain.
For a trip down memory lane, we rounded up some of the foods that were in short supply throughout the pandemic and explained what happened.
Yeast and Flour
Yeast and flour were some of the first clues that our cooking habits had changed. At the start of the pandemic, many people took up baking with gusto, leading to a shortage of flour and yeast. Even though a lot of people were making Instagram-ready sourdough, which doesn't require any added yeast, many home bakers were trying pizza dough and other bread recipes that did require dry yeast and flour.
"Anything associated with baking or making pizzas was in short supply—there was actually a black market for yeast because people couldn't find yeast," says Joan Driggs, a vice president for market research firm IRI. "That showed how people started to spend their free time. They weren't going out anymore, everyone was cooking at home. We have a whole new generation of cooks and that's going to stick with us."
In May 2020, Wendy's locations around the country took some beef items off the menu as meat factories shut down or slowed production because their workers fell ill with COVID-19. Meanwhile, as demand for meat to cook at home increased and suppliers grappled with the effects of the pandemic, grocery stores limited the number of fresh meat items their customers could buy.
"People started actually contracting COVID-19 and, particularly in the meat sector, you saw these massive shutdowns of the supply chain for meat," says Trey Malone, an assistant professor of agricultural, food, and resource economics at Michigan State University. "The processing facilities couldn't process the product and in these systems that have just-in-time delivery where you plan things out for months and months in advance, you had a backup."
Canned corn was hard to find for a whole host of reasons. People hoarded shelf-stable vegetables like corn at the beginning of the pandemic and, because corn is only harvested once a year (and there's just not that much being canned to begin with), that meant it was simply out of stock at many retailers until the next harvest. The pandemic also caught farmers by surprise, and it was too late for them to change their 2020 plans and plant more sweet corn than usual.
Tostitos Multigrain Scoops
Fans of Tostitos Multigrain Scoops took to Twitter to complain about the lack of their favorite chips on store shelves. Frito-Lay, which makes Tostitos,, explained that it streamlined its portfolio to keep other, more popular chips in stock during the pandemic. Other chips, like Lay's Lightly Salted potato chips, Cheetos Crunchy Xxtra Flamin' Hot chips, and Doritos Salsa Verde, were also in short supply.
Non-Traditional Oreo Flavors
To help meet the huge demand for regular Oreos, the iconic cookie's parent company, Mondelez, opted to slow or stop producing some of the other, more niche Oreo varieties. And there's a possibility that, broadly speaking, some of these other flavors that disappeared during the pandemic may actually never come back.
"If you were really tied to a particular variety of snack chip or drink or breakfast cereal, you likely couldn't find it because manufacturers were just focusing on their highest performers," says Driggs. "That also gave them an opportunity to review their own portfolios and decide which are the products they want to stick with, which are the highest-margin products, which sell the best. As things loosen up, they may choose not to bring back some of those varieties."
When we started cooking almost exclusively at home, we turned to easy-to-prepare meals like canned soup, pasta, and rice—and suppliers had a hard time keeping up with this sudden uptick in demand.
An aluminum can shortage led Coca-Cola Company to be more selective with the drinks it packaged and sent to retail locations, which caused Caffeine-Free Coke and other niche sodas to be in short supply. Coke's supply chain for artificial sweeteners from China was also disrupted, but company officials said they were able to head off any potential diet or zero-sugar soda shortages by initiating backup supply chains.
Pickles were in short supply, both on grocery store shelves and at some fast-food restaurants like Burger King, because of a shortage of glass jars. Burger King officials said they were having a tough time getting pickles for the chain's new chicken sandwich because of the lack of jars. Meanwhile, household pickle brands like Claussen were also feeling the jar squeeze, which was the result of increased grocery demand, decreased manufacturing outputs, and decreased glass recycling. Mason jars and lids were also hard to come by, primarily because of a huge increase in the number of people taking up home canning and preserving.
This sturdy, dependable breakfast staple was in such high demand and such short supply that some customers forked over as much as $110 for a box. Because of the proprietary way that Grape-Nuts is made, it's not totally clear what caused the shortage, but it was something on the supply side. Post Consumer Brands, which makes Grape-Nuts, says the shortage is now over, and the company iseven offering to reimburse some of its loyal fans who paid an arm and a leg for the cereal.
When we started ordering more takeout and delivery instead of eating out, restaurants had to transition from bottled ketchup to ketchup packets. This huge shift in the delivery mechanism for this tangy red condiment led to a full-blown shortage. Heinz, the most popular ketchup brand in the country, promised to boost production by 25 percent this year to meet the unprecedented demand.
Like other food manufacturers, McCormick & Company struggled to keep up with the intense demand for Old Bay seasoning as more people cooked at home. The company hired 1,400 extra employees and paused production on some of its less-popular items to help keep pace with our voracious at-home appetite for Old Bay.
Sales for cookware and food prep tools skyrocketed during the pandemic, which led to shipping delays and shortages. Lodge Cast Iron, for instance, said we nearly cleaned out its warehouse and we also bought a lot of small appliances like bread makers and electric skillets.
Other foods we bought a lot of during the pandemic: