Consumers in the Washington, D.C.-area are having a hard time finding frozen French fries in the wake of COVID-19-fueled stockpiling. However, on the other side of the country, Washington state farmer Mike Pink is weighing whether to plow under 30,000 tons of potatoes worth millions of dollars that would have been turned into French fries for fast-food chains like McDonald’s Corp, Wendy’s Co and Chick-fil-A.
Their incongruent experiences underscore how America’s highly specialized and inflexible retail and foodservice supply chains are contributing to food shortages and waste in the wake of demand disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed almost 50,000 people in the United States.
Frozen French fry sales at grocery stores spiked 78.6% for the four-week period ended April 4, according to Nielsen data, resulting in shortages at many U.S. supermarkets.
Frozen fries are an ideal pandemic staple - offering comfort, convenience and long-shelf life for U.S. families accustomed to fast-food meals and school cafeteria lunches. The main hurdle is the extra-large size of foodservice packages that are meant for kitchens that turn out dozens if not hundreds of meals each day.
While the FDA has said it would temporarily relax labeling rules and protect consumers with food allergies, foodservice suppliers still face significant hurdles switching to retail-friendly formats. New equipment for packing and labeling product is expensive, and plastic containers are in short supply.