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Near empty shelves are pictured at a grocery store in North Vancouver, B.C. on March 14, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The empty grocery store shelves that have become symbolic of COVID-19 anxieties are mostly due to “panic buying" and not indicative of larger supply problems, major retailers and experts say.

“There is enough food being manufactured. There is enough food capable of being shipped,” said Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, which represents most of the country’s major grocery chains including Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys. “There’s not actually a shortage of food.”

In statements to The Globe and Mail, major grocery retailers reiterated this. “We do not feel that there is a cause for concern as there is a significant supply of essential items," said Anthony Longo, president of Longo’s. Loblaws chairman Galen Weston, meanwhile, said that “volumes are already normalizing somewhat, and we are catching up.”

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And at a news conference Monday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu urged Canadians against buying more than what they need for a two-week period. “We are not running out of food,” she said.

A big reason behind the temporary shortages is most major retailers have moved in recent years to a “just-enough," "just-in-time” supply chain approach, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

With grocers moving toward smaller stores (particularly in major urban centres), they have relied heavily on logistics in order to maximize efficiency in their supply chains, and to prevent retail locations from holding excess stock at any given time.

And while such systems result in lower prices and reduced amounts of food waste, it also means they are less resilient to major spikes in demand.

“That’s why, even if people see empty shelves, it doesn’t mean that the company has run out of products," Prof. Charlebois said. "It’s just because that demand on that day, in that particular store, is strong.”

It is not a coincidence that the first images of panic buying began to circulate about a week ago out of British Columbia, he added. That’s where many of Canada’s first coronavirus cases were clustered, and where the country’s first recorded COVID-19 death occurred.

Not long after, Jim Mackie, owner of Jim’s Independent Grocers in Vanderhoof, B.C., said he started seeing a dramatic uptick in shopping at his store – about a 40-per-cent increase in sales this past week compared with the same period last year. He said he has been having difficulty keeping certain items, such as pasta and toilet paper, in stock. “It’s hard to keep up,” he said. “People are panic buying.”​

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At the family-owned Nature’s Fare Markets – also in B.C. – director of marketing Stephanie Thatcher said they, too, have seen an increase in demand. Still, she said, “our supply chain remains strong and we don’t anticipate any shortages.”

Shortly after the B.C. images began circulating online, similar photos of empty store shelves began to appear out of Ontario, another province particularly hard hit by coronavirus.

Prof. Charlebois predicts that as the Atlantic provinces see increases in cases of confirmed COVID-19, we will see similar instances of panic buying there, too. “Everyone has a different way of coping with anxiety and uncertainty,” he said.

Even if the situation with coronavirus continues to intensify and borders are eventually shut down, Canada is in a relatively enviable position, said Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. While we are heavily reliant on certain imported food – particularly fresh produce and processed products from the United States – he said Canada is still reasonably self-sufficient.

“Not across all categories, but in total, we are a net food exporter.”

He pointed to the fact that Canada is a major producer of many food products – grains and beef in particular, and certain supply-managed products, such as dairy and chicken.

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The disruptions to grocery stores appear to have extended to online orders. On Monday afternoon, some shoppers attempting to place web orders for pickup from Loblaws were met with a splash screen saying the retailer was experiencing “an exceptional volume of traffic" to its site.

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