At first, pandemic shortages seem surprising. After all, we had not heard that factories making pasta or toilet paper or canned tomatoes had shut down or that there were any interruptions in the supply chain. But as 2020 unfolded, empty supermarket shelves revealed which commodities consumers prized for their safety and comfort, how the “new normal” changed eating habits, and how quickly manufacturers responded to changing demand.
Even consumers who are not hoarders or don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories changed their buying habits. They didn’t always know when they would be able to get to the store, so just one more box of pasta couldn’t hurt. After all, pasta is inexpensive, easy to prepare, has a long shelf life and is the ultimate “comfort food” in uncertain times. Multiply one box per family per week by an entire country and supermarkets were forced to limit sales (“only one per customer”) as they struggled to replenish their shelves. Besides pasta, high demand items during the pandemic include canned goods, bicycles and bike parts, baking supplies like flour and yeast, cleaning supplies, paper towels, and hand sanitizer.
The problem is compounded by different supply chains for consumer and commercial use. For food supplies, about one-fourth of consumption used to be in restaurants. That consumption has shifted to supermarket purchases, and that supply chain is finding it difficult to meet demand. But with restaurants closed or restricted, their warehouses are full. Hence, some restaurants have offered a free roll of toilet paper for every takeout order. Why not? Without indoor dining, the restaurants aren’t using the paper. It proved to capture consumer attention and be a creative marketing move.
The changes in supply and demand led to another problem—packaging challenges. Closure of public venues like stadiums and restaurants depressed demand for the bulk packaging of food and other products. For home use, consumers needed the same products in great quantity but in small packaging forms. Manufacturers had to decrease the production line for bulk-size packaging and run those devoted to smaller packaging at much higher speeds…if they could. This isn’t easy for some manufacturers who might have to buy brand-new equipment or retrofit older units at a high cost. Even if the food manufacturers can meet demand, it goes hand-in-hand with the packaging manufacturers who produce the cardboard boxes, cans, bottles and plastic containers—not to mention the caps, nozzles, and dispensing pumps. And all of this depends on market projections for 2021 and beyond.
Let’s get back to pasta. Not only were some supermarket shelves almost depleted of this beloved product, but some types of pasta were barely available throughout America. Let’s take bucatini, the long pasta with the hole down the middle. A journalist in New York who lives and dies by this pasta, which apparently absorbs more than 200% more sauce than its hole-free brethren, investigated this shortage with both Barilla and De Cecco. During a shortage, pasta manufacturers in Italy and the United States first make pasta with the most demand— spaghetti and penne in America. Add to this the complexity of making bucatini. Because of the hole in the middle, the production is much more complicated. So it is one of the shapes more likely to suffer during a shortage. And this, despite, a “bucatini craze” due to both the charitable contributions to Amatriciana, the city in the Lazio region rocked by an earthquake a few years ago, and the popularity these days of bucatini used in place of plastic straws to protect the environment.
Add to this a little “hiccup” with the FDA (the U.S. Federal Drug Administration). Many years ago, the federal government mandated that pasta be made with “enriched flours,” that is, with minimum and maximum levels of certain vitamins and nutrients. The FDA found De Cecco’s bucatini iron levels lacking…by 2.1 milligrams, which is one fourteenth of one one thousandth of an ounce. Apparently, the FDA doesn’t routinely check the iron levels of pasta. So it’s possible that a competitor became a whistleblower. But let’s not go into conspiracy theories. Let’s hope that the FDA will focus on the bigger issues of today and will let the pasta lovers find their favorite pasta shapes.