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Delays are nothing new for regional food suppliers

By Jaymie L. White

Special to Wreckhouse Press

PORT AUX BASQUES – The process of getting food into Newfoundland and Labrador isn’t an easy one. With the extended travel times, the unpredictable weather, and the added difficulties brought on by the pandemic over the last two years, shoppers have come to find their produce spoils more quickly, and items previously available seem harder to come by.

Jim Cormier, the Director for Atlantic Canada with the Retail Council of Canada, said this problem isn’t a new one.

“I have been doing this job now for over 10 years, and there’s always challenges involved in getting product to Newfoundland and Labrador for the obvious reasons that, even in the middle of summer, there are transportation issues, ferry delays, expenses involved, and the few ways of getting the products to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. So that’s not new. That being said, we are constantly working on it. We have a long-running relationship with the folks at Oceanex and Marine Atlantic because that’s how most of the product gets there and they’ve, to their credit, have taken a lot of steps over the years to improve their abilities to help us get our product through.”

Fresh product doesn’t last long and because of Canada’s climate, a lot of foods on store shelves are from different locations worldwide.

“Even pre-COVID you’re already looking at a transport truck travelling from Southern California, Florida, Mexico, and that’s not a two-hour trip to make it to Montreal or North Sydney. It takes a couple of days to get it there. Now if there’s weather issues sometimes the food will have to sit for an extra day, maybe two if it’s really bad weather, and from there it still has to get across.”

Once the food makes it across the Gulf of St. Lawrence it still has to be brought to distribution centres and grocery stores, which means people are waiting days before seeing the product on the dinner plate.

“There’s a lot there that has to go perfectly in order for you not to be dealing with challenges in getting product, maybe the freshness level not being to a level that it would be even in Halifax or somewhere further south. There’s a lot of those challenges to begin with and, add to that, COVID meant that in some cases you had producer companies workforces being significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic. If workers are off, there are less people involved getting the fruits and vegetables out of the fields and onto the trucks.”

Cormier said trucker shortages have been going on for years and is another contributing factor to delays; however, grocers are supply chain and logistical experts who are able to quickly pivot as needed.

“They’re so good at it that people have come to expect that, at any time day or night, you as a consumer should be able to go into your grocery store and you should be able to see full shelves filled with products from all around the world, many of which are perishable, and that’s the expectation. But people need to understand that there is this huge logistical process that goes into place in order to get that product from the country where it grows to the grocery store in Newfoundland. It’s amazing what they’re able to do, but there are challenges. It’s not that the supply chain is broken, but the supply chain has been under severe challenge over the last couple of years. That’s starting to come around but it’s still going to be a slow process as the world works its way through COVID.”

Cormier advises consumers to take into consideration where their products are coming from and how those locations are faring with the pandemic.

“Our COVID numbers here generally are pretty good, but we don’t produce all of the products that we’re used to consuming. So if you think to where one of your favourite products may be from, where it’s grown or produced, some of those countries are still having severe challenges with high COVID numbers, so it’s still going to be awhile yet before a lot of this is able to regulated.”

Darrell Mercer, Corporate Communications Manager with Marine Atlantic, said the biggest challenge they are currently seeing with commercial transportation are various climate changes such as more powerful and longer lasting windstorms.

“Years ago, we might lose one or two crossings with a storm system. Now we’re seeing storm systems that can last multiple days. So when we get into those types of situations, it does impact the backlogs that we do see at the terminal. But once again, now that we have larger vessels in operation, once we are past a weather delay we can clear up the backlog fairly quickly because the vessels we have in service are larger than those in the past.”

During COVID, Marine Atlantic actually saw an increase in commercial traffic, which meant their ability to move product during that period remained strong; however the storm systems that have moved through caused some disruption and they actively work on to combat the delays, especially after the severe rainfall that effectively cut off the Southwest Coast late last year.

“That’s the first time that we’ve ever experienced that type of severe weather system that washed out the Trans Canada Highway in several different sections, and of course we had to re-open the Argentia service for that period. We implemented the triangle route between Port Aux Basques, North Sydney, and Argentia for the first time ever, so we do have contingency plans in place. But it is certainly something that is certainly making it into our planning activities right now because, if nothing else, the weather patterns are certainly showing us that we can expect storm systems with high winds and storm systems with heavy precipitation and we are starting to see the impacts of that, not only on cancellations that we’ve been experiencing over the past couple of years, but also on the infrastructure such as the Trans Canada Highway.”

Mercer said there is a dedicated amount of space on every crossing for commercial vehicles because they understand the importance of moving the goods across, even during peak season when passenger and tourist traffic is at its peak.

“When you look at the season and the traffic volumes, in the wintertime it’s the lowest amount of traffic that we experience during the year, so the configuration that we have at that point in time is usually the Blue Puttees and the Highlanders with a standby vessel in case we do get into periods of weather delays because that can clear up the backlog. In the summer season when we do see all of this traffic, we have four vessels in operation. Balancing the demands of both sectors of our customer base can be challenging at times, but we have the capacity available during each period to transport that traffic.”

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