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Fact check: Shortages due to rising demand, supply chain disruptions

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The claim: Bare grocery store shelves are the result of President Joe Biden's policies

Spurred in part by rising consumer demand amid easing coronavirus restrictions, product shortages and delays have been reported across the country. Online, some social media users blame the Biden administration.

An image in an Oct. 17 Instagram post shows what appear to be empty shelves at a grocery store. Text in the photo reads "#BareShelvesBiden."

"This does not happen in America," reads the post, which originated Oct. 15 on Twitter.

Other posts with #BareShelvesBiden have accumulated tens of thousands of interactions on Facebook and Instagram, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. Some attribute the grocery shortage to President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda, contained in a budget reconciliation bill that would allocate trillions of dollars for everything from education to the environment.

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But those claims mislead about what's driving shortages of some products across the USA.

"I’d consider this claim to be false," Vishal Gaur, professor of manufacturing management at Cornell University, said in an email. "The shortages we are experiencing are due to supply chain backlog and linkages."

USA TODAY reached out to social media users who shared the claim for comment.

Image from Texas power outage

The Instagram post uses an outdated photo to make a point about current supply chain problems.

The photo shows sparse shelves at a grocery store in Houston. It was taken Feb. 20, after a slow-moving winter storm knocked out power and wreaked havoc across Texas.

Embed from Getty Images

"Shoppers are seen wandering next to near-empty shelves in a supermarket in Houston, Texas following winter storm Uri that left millions without power and caused water pipes to burst," reads the original caption on the photo, taken by Francois Picard for the Agence France-Presse.

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Now, there are shortages of some groceries – including carbonated drinks, coffee and chicken – across the country. But many photos that claim to show those shortages are being shared out of context, according to independent fact-checking organizations.

Shortages due to rising demand, capacity constraints

Experts say Biden's policies are unrelated to product shortages across the country.

"Much of the current supply chain woes are attributable to the disruptions of COVID-19, but its genesis can be traced back even earlier, to the trade war period, prior to 2019," Nallan Suresh, professor of operations management and strategy at the University of Buffalo, said in an email. "The current supply problems are due to disruptions in all segments of global supply chains."

The connection some social media users make to Biden's Build Back Better agenda is particularly tenuous, seeing as it hasn't passed yet.

Since its introduction in late September, lawmakers have been negotiating the details of the Build Back Better Act. Democratic leadership hopes to get the bill, as well as a separate bipartisan infrastructure package, to Biden's desk this month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accompanied by other House Democrats and climate activists, pauses while speaking about their "Build Back Better on Climate" plan on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 28, 2021.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accompanied by other House Democrats and climate activists, pauses while speaking about their "Build Back Better on Climate" plan on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 28, 2021.

Meanwhile, some supermarkets are seeing delays and shortages of basic supplies. The reason is more complex than a single piece of legislation.

"The supply chain shortages are a global problem that are due to many factors," Sampath Rajagopalan, professor of data sciences and operations at the University of Southern California, said in an email. "Some of the most important factors are port capacity constraints, container shortages, production capacity constraints in some countries, truck driver shortages, etc."

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, consumer spending dropped by record numbers. As more Americans received the COVID-19 vaccines and ventured outside their homes, spending started to tick back up. Now, retail sales continue to rise.

The result: an overwhelmed supply chain.

"To run optimally, logistics has to be well-planned and coordinated," David Correll, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's FreightLab, said in an email. "The pandemic and the homebody economy wreaked havoc on those networks, leaving supply chains unbalanced and out of whack."

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In the U.S., a backlog of cargo at West Coast ports, as well as staffing shortages in the logistics industry, has partially contributed to supply chain snags. Suresh said container shortages and rising shipping costs are also a factor.

Further upstream in the supply chain, there are serious production cutbacks.

"The coal shortage crisis in China has caused (a) power shortage, which has been curtailing production volumes in China," he said. "China is also experiencing disruptions in their export hubs and ports due to COVID and the delta variant."

The Instagram post mentions Biden's plan to require COVID-19 vaccination for more than 100 million workers in the U.S. But experts told USA TODAY it's unlikely those requirements have had an effect on the supply chain.

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"I think this argument ... is too quick to overlook the supply chain problems that we’ve already experienced," Correll said. "While it's possible that some important firms might lose employees because some employees don’t want to be vaccinated, we don’t yet know how many this will be."

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that bare grocery store shelves are the result of Biden's policies. The image used in the Instagram post shows the aftermath of a winter storm in Texas. Experts told USA TODAY current product shortages are the result of global supply chain problems spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. The Build Back Better Act, which has not yet passed Congress, is not thought to be a contributing factor.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Supply chain shortages not related to Biden's policies

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