During his 36 years of working in the food industry, Clay Mullins has never seen anything like today when it comes to supply chain challenges. 

“Historically, the food business hasn’t had significant supply chain problems except that transportation capacity would be tight at times,” said Mr. Mullins, vice president of supply chain and logistics, Crown Bakeries, Brentwood, Tenn.

Within the past three years, delays and disruptions driven by COVID-19 have been popping up everywhere. Solving these issues has been like a game of whack-a-mole, except with serious consequences.

“With many of them, you don’t know where they are coming from until they have occurred,” Mr. Mullins explained. 

Jim Warren, BEMA chairman and vice president, Exact Mixing, Reading Bakery Systems, said the baking industry is struggling with a lack of raw materials to make products, components for equipment and the workforce needed to meet customer demands.

“Historically, individual shortages have occurred, but this is the first time we are seeing shortages of these three key manufacturing components at the same time,” he said. “The result, as we all know too well, is creating chaos in the industry.”

The situation has also affected what retailers offer in terms of product variety. 

“Consumers can still purchase goods but don’t have the extensive choices they did three years ago,” Mr. Warren said. “There are even bare spots on grocery store shelves that were coveted in retail locations not too long ago.”

Like many companies, Crown Bakeries has lined up additional suppliers where possible, but even that doesn’t guarantee enough supply when a systemwide shortage of an ingredient occurs from import issues or not enough people to produce it.

“If you order an ingredient and the supplier’s labor doesn’t show up, that has a whipsaw impact throughout the supply chain because the supplier loses the sale, I lose a sale and our customer loses the sale,” Mr. Mullins said.

A few years ago, the American Bakers Association (ABA) made supply chain a priority as a part of its long-term strategic plan, which built a better partnership and communication network with stakeholders prior to the current crisis.

Lee Sanders, ABA’s senior vice president of government relations and public affairs, called supply chain the No. 1 issue affecting ABA members and mentioned it will be a key area of discussion during an executive breakout session at the association’s convention March 26-29 in Amelia Island, Fla.

“It ebbs and flows, and it shifts, so there are different pressure points,” she said.

Ms. Sanders pointed to the availability of eggs, which skyrocketed in price in 2022 due to reoccurring outbreaks of the Avian flu. Additional disruptions and high costs occurred in vegetable oil, butter, sugar and other key ingredients for baked goods.

More recently, carbon dioxide, which many bakeries use to blast freeze products, has been in short supply. In some cases, she said, bakeries began stocking up on ingredients, but warehouse space restricts the amount of inventory at some facilities.

“Everyone’s strategy has shifted from having just-in-time deliveries for ingredients to now having ‘just in case,’ ” Ms. Sanders noted.

While shipping issues at the nation’s main ports have been alleviated, she said, initiatives like the OSHA Shipping Reform Act, which is being rolled out in 2023, may provide additional relief. However, the systemic lack of truck drivers is only going to get worse as 1 million leave or retire over the next decade.

Ms. Sanders added the threatened rail strike that was averted in 2022 allowed ABA and other groups to air their concerns to Congress and government officials about the vulnerability of logistics systems and their importance to the supply chain. 

Supply chain issues are affecting all parts of the economy, but they are especially impactful when it comes to food.

Thinking back on the past 36 years, Mr. Mullins reflected on why he came into the industry and why it’s so vital that the supply chain gets fixed. 

“We have to keep in mind that we’re feeding the world, and we can’t stop working on that mission,” he said.

This article is an excerpt from the February 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Supply Chain, click here.