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The Coronavirus Condiment Conundrum

The vexing thing about a novel pathogen and its attendant disease is that we expect it to behave like earlier pathogens and maladies we have experienced. But, sometimes historic diseases poorly predict the new problems that novel pathogens can raise. One such unexpected fallout from the current coronavirus pandemic was that farmed fish were getting too big for restaurant plates as discussed earlier in these pages. Now, the current pandemic has us facing another unpredicted conundrum, a critical shortage of ketchup packets!

CNN recently reported that restaurants have descended into a mad search for ketchup packets. One Denver tavern owner admitted to purloining ketchup packets from nearby McDonald’s and Wendy’s fast food franchises in order to meet his customers’ needs. Adding to his emergency, the tavern is across from Coors Field, to which the baseball All Star Game has been moved, thanks to Georgia’s new voter reform laws. As a 30+ year Wisconsinite (or “Sconnie” for short) and, thereby somewhat expert in brats, and hot dogs, I offer a suggestion to reduce this ketchup shortage--never, ever put ketchup on brats or hot dogs. Mustard is the proper condiment for these tubes of tasty processed meat. Admittedly, if everyone took this advice it could cause a deficit of that tangy yellow or brown topping and add to our COVID misery. There is nothing sadder than a bare brat, unless it is one slathered with ketchup. Folks in Chicago likely agree. Have you ever seen a Chicago dog with ketchup? It will have a luminescent green relish, but never ketchup.

This shortage of ketchup packets began last summer when the CDC began discouraging dine-in service at sit-down restaurants and encouraging delivery and takeout instead. Sit-down restaurants coast-to-coast began packing food for people who expected condiment packages with their meals. Suddenly, this packet packing by formerly traditional restaurants competed with fast food places for ketchup packets. As a result, demand went up, prices increased, and supply went down for those little 1/3 ounce packets. That is called economics.

In response, Heinz, the biggest ketchup producer in the country, just days ago announced it was increasing production of ketchup packets to 12 billion a year. A condiment Warp Speed?

This ketchup shortage also has fueled an underground market for the old packets you might have hoarded in a kitchen or desk drawer, or baked in your car’s glove box or under the seats. Entrepreneurial diners with a cache of ketchup packets are selling their treasures on eBay and Facebook Marketplace. One Indianapolis entrepreneur sold 20 Heinz ketchup packets for $8 shortly after the Wall Street Journal reported on the ketchup shortage. This too is called economics.

While all this reflects entrepreneurial principles, it is not exactly an efficient market. The prices in dozens of ketchup-packet listings posted online ranged from a quarter to $5 per packet. The latter was offered in a lot of 20 packets for $100. On eBay a week ago, an acupuncturist from NY posted “Assorted Ketchup packets for Apocalypse Survival,” with a starting bid of 99 cents for three packets. They soon were up to $11.50. Who knew ketchup was essential during an apocalypse?

What is next--a shortage of relish, mayo, and mustard packets? Maybe sugar and fake-sugar packages? It might not be too late to begin stocking up on condiments in case of an apocalypse. Make sure to store your bounty in a secure place, maybe along with your toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Amazingly, people fret about vaccine safety during this ketchup shortage. Who ever heard of a vaccine protecting anyone from an apocalypse?

Is it time for lunch?

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