‘There’s plenty of food’: Grocery store chains and L.A. mayor urge people to stop panic-buying

Coronavirus
A sign announces a two-item limit for certain items as people shop for food at a Ralph's Supermarket in Monterey Park, Calif. on March 16, 2020, as the Coronavirus pandemic brings much of California to a standstill. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

A sign announces a two-item limit for certain items as people shop for food at a Ralph’s Supermarket in Monterey Park, Calif. on March 16, 2020, as the Coronavirus pandemic brings much of California to a standstill. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

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As store shelves remain empty of basics like toilet paper, the mayor of Los Angeles joined executives of grocery chains such as Ralphs and Albertsons Monday in assuring the public there is no shortage of food.

Fears of the spread of COVID-19 and warnings from public officials have led to Americans buying out the stock of items like canned food and bottled water at many stores. But, on Sunday, President Donald Trump urged shoppers to “relax because there’s plenty.”

It’s a message Mayor Eric Garcetti echoed Monday as he spoke alongside the leaders of several major grocery store chains during a news conference held from a Ralphs distribution center in Paramount and live-streamed online.

Executives of chains including Gelsons, Food 4 Less, Albertsons, Vons, Ralphs and Northgate Gonzalez Markets all insisted the food supply chain remains strong.

Rather, they said, it is so-called panic-buying that has resulted in a demand stores and suppliers are struggling to keep up with. Rob McDougall, president and CEO of Gelsons Markets, described it as “unprecedented.”

“I just want to reassure our customers that although we are a little bit behind on stocking some shelves, it’s not a supply problem — it’s just really a people problem, and bringing that product to the shelves,” McDougall said.

In late February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its latest update on food and drug supply chains around the country. While warning that there could be a future impact on drugs produced in China due to COVID-19, the agency noted no potential shortage of food.

Since then, federal and local officials have worked to ease the concerns of Americans even as cities such as L.A. and New York have ordered the closure of bars and restaurants with the exception of take-out and delivery.

“Stay calm … and remember Los Angeles, we’ll get through this and there’s plenty of food,” Garcetti said.

The mayor said unnecessarily stocking up could end up hurting those who do not yet have enough supplies and may be at particularly high risk due to age or health.

“Hoarding is hurting our community so please don’t do that,” Garcetti said. “And your behavior isn’t just bad, it can cost somebody their life.”

Currently, the FDA is working with “industry, federal, state partners to closely monitor the food supply chain,” tweeted the agency’s deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, Dr. Anand Shah.

“While there are no nationwide shortages of food, consumers may see inventory of certain foods temporarily low before stores can restock,” Shah wrote Sunday.

Garcetti acknowledged an ongoing shortage of some items like hand sanitizer, which he estimated should be fully restocked in stores in “a matter of weeks, not months.”

“There are some things that will take a little bit longer,” he said.

Some of the grocery chain executives who spoke alongside Garcetti said store employees have been working overtime as suppliers try to ramp up their output.

“Try to be prudent in the amount of products you’re buying in one setting. Allow us to get caught up,” said the president of Food 4 Less, Bryan Kaltenbach.

“But the industry is strong, the food supply is strong and we will be there for you,” Kaltenbach said.

Southern California-based Northgate Gonzalez Market plans to open all its 41 stores from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. for the disabled and for seniors 65 years of age and older. Noting the additional risks older adults face, Garcetti said people should allow seniors to go to the front of grocery store lines so they can get out as quickly as possible.

Oscar Gonzalez, co-president and chief operating officer of Northgate Gonzalez Markets, said stores, suppliers and others in the commercial food chain will be better able to stock up once shopping habits adjust to pre-pandemic levels.

“The issue that most of us retailers have been dealing with is this over-buying,” Gonzalez said. “So the faster we can get to normalcy in terms of buying behavior, then we will be very good.”

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