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Empty shelves: Why tampons, Sriracha and peanut butter are in short supply

First it was toilet paper.

Then lumber, chicken wings and cream cheese.

And now, tampons, Sriracha hot sauce and peanut butter are hard to find. Shortages are ongoing more than two years into the pandemic as manufacturers continue to deal with battered supply chains, uneven consumer demand and unpredictable weather conditions.

“When you get all these changes in demand and delays because of COVID, it makes it hard to rebuild your supply chain,” said John Taylor, professor of global supply chain management at Wayne State University.

Related: Seeing empty grocery store shelves again? Here’s why.

Michigan shoppers have been seeing sporadic empty grocery store shelves since March 2020. But a recent survey from Retail Insight found that 71% of U.S. consumers think shortages are worse now than in the early days of pandemic panic buying.

Here’s why some items might be hard to find these days:

Where are all the tampons?

Tampons are the latest victim to a supply chain crisis that has plagued manufacturers for two years.

Barren shelves now greet customers looking for menstrual products with one Twitter user documenting the scarcity by saying, “the tampon shortage has made it to northern Michigan.” First reported by Time, this shortage is the latest blow to women after a shuttered Abbott plant led to a baby formula crisis.

A Walgreens spokesperson confirmed there are “brand-specific” tampon shortages in certain parts of the country. While CVS retail communications manager Matt Blanchette said suppliers have been unable to “fulfill the full quantities of orders” in recent weeks.

Lack of raw materials like cotton and plastic are reportedly responsible for the production issues.

Related: Free tampon program expanding to all University of Michigan public restrooms

Procter & Gamble, the $366 billion company behind Tampax and Always products, cited challenges like “prices of commodities and raw materials, and costs of labor, transportation, energy, pension and healthcare” in an April earnings call.

“There is some problem with regard to sourcing raw materials,” said David Closs, a Michigan State University chaired professor of supply chain management. “I think the bigger one is labor.”

At Helping Women Period, a Michigan non-profit organization that supplies menstrual products to people who are homeless or low-income, executive director Lynse Tait noticed recent delays when ordering in bulk. Tait said a May 1 order didn’t arrive until mid-June when it usually takes about two weeks.

“In 2021, we received 3,000 tampons as in-kind donations during the month of May. And this year, we only received 2,000,” she said. “So, people are not buying them to donate either.”

Shortages like this are often exacerbating by hoarding.

Taylor says these “wild fluctuations” create a bullwhip effect where sudden demand prompts suppliers to step up production.

“If you’re having stockouts because the COVID pandemic delayed shipments, now these retailers are out of stock,” Taylor said. “They’re clamoring for more and more and more, so you ramp up your production more. It takes a couple months to ramp it up and to get the raw materials to make the tampons, and then all of the sudden customers don’t really need that.”

Related: Michigan no longer has a ‘tampon tax’ on menstrual products

Shortages paired with inflation have also pushed the price of menstrual products up with tampons costing nearly 10% more and pads are 8.3% higher than last year, according to Bloomberg.

Tait says limited supply and higher costs ripple into people’s health and the economy.

“People use things they’re not supposed to use if they don’t have the product they need, so they use socks, t-shirts, paper towels, toilet paper,” she said. “Or they just miss school or work because they’re home.”

This shortage, however, could raise awareness about reusable products like menstrual cups and period underwear.

“Maybe this will help push people over the edge a little bit,” Tait said.

RIP to a hot Sriracha summer

David Tran, owner of Huy Fong Foods Inc., produces Sriracha sauce on Jan. 30, 2015, in Irwindale, California. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times) TNSTNS

Sriracha fans might be scrambling to stock up this summer.

Hoy Fong Foods, the company that produces the hot sauce with a cult-like following, confirmed an “unprecedented shortage” of its chili products. This will affect production of Chili Garlic, Sambal Oelek and Sriracha Hot Chili sauces.

“We are still endeavoring to resolve this issue that has be caused by several spiraling events, including unexpected crop failure from the spring chili harvest,” Huy Fong Foods said in a statement.

Huy Fong Foods sources its chilis from Mexico, according to NBC News, which is currently experiencing historic droughts.

“It’s related to a number of things,” Closs said. “One of them is a shortage of raw materials, packaging and food ingredients that go into the hot sauce”

An April memo from Huy Fong Foods to distributors said orders will be on hold until September.

“We hope for a fruitful fall season and thank our customers for their patience and continued support during this difficult time,” the company said.

Peanut butter is in a jam

Peanut butter recall

The J.M. Smucker Company has voluntarily recalled certain Jif brand peanut butter products, a staple in many households, that have the lot code numbers between 1274425 to 2140425, which were manufactured in Lexington, Kentucky, due to possible salmonella contamination. (FDA handout)

Peanut butter is also hard to come by these days. But this shortage is unrelated to supply chains.

Nearly 50 types of creamy, crunchy and natural Jif peanut butter were recalled in late May by J. M. Smucker Co. due to potential Salmonella contamination. Sixteen illnesses across a dozen states have been connected to the recall, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Although the recall only impacts Jif products, photos on social media show vacant shelves as customers gobble up other brands of peanut butter.

“They just presume there’s going to be a shortage when the nature of the demand is not there,” Closs said.

Despite shortages, some retailers also have too much product

Although there have been intermittent product shortages over the past two years, retailers are currently dealing with another issue: overstocking.

“Within the supply chain it’s always difficult when the demand shifts to figure out what’s really happening because you tend to overact,” Taylor said.

Retailers, trying to meet demand from shoppers with stimulus cash in hand, stocked up on products like patio furniture. But then supply chain issues and shipping delays left them with too much inventory when demand changed.

Related: Toilet paper wasn’t the only shortage caused by the pandemic. Here’s what affected Michiganders

Target plans to slash prices to clear “excess inventory,” the national retailer announced in early June. Walmart, in a recent earnings call, noted inventory is up 33% as customer demand changes under the pressure of inflation—shoppers are spending more on food and less on general merchandise.

Taylor says it could take awhile, even going into 2023, for the bullwhip to ease.

“Consumers can expect everything to slowly get better. But it’s going to months and probably the rest of the year—if we don’t have any more variants or big shutdowns—it’s going to take the rest of the year to get everything sorted out,” he said.

More on MLive:

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We’re getting used to inflation. That makes the Federal Reserve nervous.

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