Add it to the list of supply chain issues inspired by COVID-19.

By Tim Nelson
April 27, 2020
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If there’s anything we’ve learned so far about America’s food supply chain so far during the current pandemic, it’s that the journey from farm to grocery store shelf isn’t a straight line. From dairy to eggs to pork, recent weeks have been full of logistical challenges and supply imbalances for various food products, occasionally leading to rampant food waste amid times of seeming shortage.

And as it turns out, not even frozen French fries are safe. Much like other disappearing foods, an initial spike in demand for this deep-fried pandemic guilty pleasure has led to production shortages of fries meant for regular consumers in grocery stores.

At the same time, the widespread cancellation of restaurant orders for massive, wholesale packages has left those producers with a glut of unsellable product. Beyond their sheer size, Reuters reports that the issue with this wholesale packaging is that it doesn’t feature the kind of nutrition facts and ingredient labels that FDA rules require for consumer food products. Beyond that, they’re missing the kind of barcodes that they’d need to be scanned at a checkout.

While producers like Ore-Ida, Heinz’s fry brand, are trying their best to pump supply back into the market, potato farmers are sitting on many tons of potentially unsellable crops. At a time when the National Potato Council estimates somewhere between $750 million and $1.3 billion in potatoes and potato products are caught up in the supply chain shuffle, farmers like Mike Pink face a difficult choice over how to proceed. 

“Do I continue to invest or do I stop and try to minimize my loss?” Pink, who had orders for 1,000 acres of potatoes canceled since the crisis began, told Reuters. “It’s just devastating.”

Though the FDA has signaled that it will relax labeling restrictions, it’s still possible that a large number of potatoes and fries might still go to waste, as wholesale producers still face other obstacles in getting their fries into stores— least of all the fact that they don’t have distribution relationships with supermarkets. Reorienting their production processes at a time when food plants across the country are shutting down amid COVID-19 concerns further adds to the challenge.

So if you can’t find fries, just know that it’s not because potatoes have shriveled up and disappeared. For now, add them to the list of vanishing items that might inspire us all to rethink how food gets from farm to freezer once this is all over.