Could coronavirus be behind a bucatini pasta shortage? : The Indicator from Planet Money Bucatini is a specialty pasta that looks a lot like spaghetti with a hole in it. For pasta lovers, it's a fan-favorite...but it has mysteriously gone missing from grocery stores across the U.S.
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Missing Bucatini

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The Straw That Broke The Bucatini Supply Chain

Missing Bucatini

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, I am joined by PLANET MONEY producer Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. And Alexi, hello, first of all.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Howdy, Cardiff.

GARCIA: Alexi, you've brought us a kind of pasta mystery.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Not just any pasta, Cardiff. This mystery is all about a very particular pasta shape called bucatini. It's basically just spaghetti with a hole in it. And this story comes to us by way of a self-avowed bucatini fanatic, New York Magazine writer Rachel Handler.

When did you know that you were a bucatini head or a bucatini bopper? Or what do we call ourselves?

RACHEL HANDLER: I've been saying bucatini head because I just think it's cute. But I definitely didn't grow up in a bucatini household by any means. We were definitely a spaghetti family.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The mystery part of all of this began when Rachel started to notice last spring that her beloved bucatini seemed to be getting harder and harder to find at her local grocery stores in New York until eventually, it seemed to be totally gone.

GARCIA: And then one day in the fall, Rachel was on the phone with her also pasta-obsessed mother who lives in Chicago. And her mom kind of mentioned off-hand that she was having the exact same problem.

HANDLER: She was like, Rachel, I literally haven't been able to find bucatini anywhere. And she was talking specifically about De Cecco.

GARCIA: De Cecco is a 140-year-old Italian pasta company.

HANDLER: So when she said that, I was like - slo-mo, I was like...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOM SOUND EFFECT)

HANDLER: Wait. You're in suburban Chicago, and you can't find bucatini?

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOM SOUND EFFECT)

HANDLER: Because I thought it was, like, a New York problem, like, a very classic sort of, like, you know, hipstery (ph) - I can't find my bucatini. Whatever. Like, who cares? But then I was like, holy [expletive]. Oh, sorry. Can I swear (laughter)?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, yeah.

HANDLER: OK, OK.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It's encouraged.

HANDLER: OK, great. I was like, holy [expletive]. If you can't find it, that means that this is a real issue. And then she told me that she had actually reached out to the customer service department at De Cecco. First, she sent them an email.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah, that's a classic move.

HANDLER: It was, like, full of typos, which is, like, a way that moms write emails. But her email said, I am a huge fan of bucatini pasta - huge in all caps. I have not been able to find it for many weeks at any store. It is my favorite pasta to cook. Then this sentence is in all caps with four question marks. Are you still making it? Please tell me how to get some.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Not too long afterwards, Rachel's mom gets a voicemail from a regional De Cecco sales representative named Brian (ph).

HANDLER: And then when she played me the voicemail from Brian, I was like, holy [expletive]. Like, this [expletive] goes deep. There is a cover-up. Like, something weird is going on.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Brian told Rachel's mom that she was likely having trouble finding De Cecco bucatini because of an FDA hiccup.

HANDLER: The hiccup, exactly.

GARCIA: For some reason, the FDA, which is the Food and Drug Administration, seemed to have put a hold on the import of De Cecco bucatini. And now Brian was telling Rachel's mom to sit tight and check the shelves a few months down the road.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And the fact that this little pasta mystery seemed to reach all the way to the federal government - well, that was something that a dogged journalist like Rachel could not in good conscience look away from.

HANDLER: This is the turning point for me. Yeah.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The next day, Rachel pitched the story to her editor, but in the back of her mind, she wasn't sure it would go anywhere. It all just felt so big.

HANDLER: And I think all of us figured nothing would really come of it. At least I did. I was like, I'm never going to figure out what's going on. But when I began calling De Cecco, I reached out to, like, five or six different people, email and phone call and voicemail. And no one got back to me. And then I was like, something insane is happening, and I don't know what. So at that point, I was like, there's a story here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: After the break, the story here.

Rachel started digging with calls and emails to De Cecco, but that didn't get much of a response.

HANDLER: I got, like, a form letter back at one point that was like, thank you for your interest in De Cecco. We will get back to you soon. And then they never did.

GARCIA: So Rachel turned to the National Pasta Association for an answer. The NPA spokesperson hadn't heard anything about a bucatini ban. But he tells her, look; there's been a broader pasta shortage across the industry all throughout the pandemic because people have been stocking up on pasta-like dry goods.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So his theory - we'll call it theory No. 1 - was that the existing bucatini stocks had been wiped out by that first wave of COVID panic buying. And after that, many of the big pasta producers had decided to dedicate their production to the most in-demand pasta shapes - the spaghettis and linguines of the world - and let some of the more specialty cuts go by the wayside for the time being.

GARCIA: And Rachel was like, OK, that would help explain the broader scarcity of bucatini, but it would not account for this weird, mysterious FDA hiccup. The NPA spokesman was not sure about that, and he said he'd get back to her if he heard anything.

HANDLER: But then he called me right back, and he was like, Rachel, I know what it is.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The National Pasta associate had quickly done a little digging, and now he had a new theory - theory No. 2.

HANDLER: It's that people are using bucatini as straws.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: What?

HANDLER: And he was like, yeah, people - because of the environment, they don't want to use plastic straws. So they'll use bucatini and then eat the straw.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And in fact, when Rachel looked online, there did appear to be what looked like boxes of bucatini being marketed and sold as turtle-friendly eco-straws. And this is where the National Pasta associate thought big bucatini may have fallen afoul of the FDA.

HANDLER: The problem is that you can't eat uncooked pasta because it's not a ready-to-eat product. And so maybe the FDA is worried that people are getting sick from eating raw pasta, and so they've banned bucatini.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The theory is that there are a bunch of al dente-loving environmentalists...

HANDLER: (Laughter).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: ...Who are misusing bucatini to slurp down their kombucha.

HANDLER: Yeah, I think his theory was that there were a handful of people out there who were trying to save the Earth and, in the process, gave themselves E. coli or something.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: (Laughter).

HANDLER: And then the FDA cracked down on them because they were like, this can't go on.

GARCIA: So Rachel starts reaching out to the FDA to ask about this theory, and that's when she stumbles on a major clue lurking in plain sight on the FDA's website.

HANDLER: Deep in this long, long, long page about food alerts and import alerts, there was, like, three paragraphs specifically about De Cecco bucatini.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This is it, Rachel thinks - the smoking gun. Except...

HANDLER: None of it made any sense to me. It was about iron and macaroni and refusal of admission pursuant to Section 801(a)(3) - blah, blah, blah. I was like, I don't know what any of this means.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Rachel got on the phone with the chairman of the National Pasta Association, Carl Zuanelli. And luckily, he was able to decipher it.

HANDLER: Basically, pasta in the U.S. is called enriched macaroni product.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Enriched macaroni product.

HANDLER: Enriched macaroni product, not pasta. Don't get it twisted.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: (Laughter).

HANDLER: And there is sort of a certain minimum or maximum criteria for vitamins and nutrients for it to certify itself as an enriched macaroni product. And basically, what this jargony FDA thing said was that the De Cecco bucatini was found to be slightly lacking in iron, and so they weren't importing it anymore.

GARCIA: So finally, the answer to what had caused this whole bucatini shortage seemed to be a combination of factors - pasta makers prioritizing their bestsellers over specialty shapes. And, in the case of De Cecco bucatini, it didn't have enough iron in it, and that fell short of FDA standards.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But there is still one dangling thread to this mystery because when the FDA finally got back to Rachel, they told her they'd notice De Cecco bucatini's iron deficiency through a routine food inspection.

HANDLER: But Carl said to me, you know, this doesn't happen, really, unless a competitor tips the FDA off. FDA doesn't go around testing pasta boxes. Then I reached out to a legal source who had worked with the FDA before. I don't want to give this person away 'cause they very, very much wanted to be anonymous.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bucatini Deep Throat.

HANDLER: Exactly. And he confirmed what Carl had said, which was that somebody put pressure on the FDA.

GARCIA: We reached out to the FDA, and they told us that they had discovered De Cecco bucatini's iron deficiency through a, quote, "routine enforcement activity," and also that the case is still pending. We also reached out to De Cecco, but all we got was an automatic response saying they wouldn't be responding.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: If you are a bucatini bopper or just bucatini-curious, we are happy to report that other brands now appear to be easily available online. As for Rachel Handler, whose story you can also find online, she says she's going to keep digging into who might have done De Cecco dirty, though as of yet, even the company itself won't answer her calls.

HANDLER: They think I'm the enemy, I think. But I'm like, no, I'm trying to get answers that the public wants from you because we love your pasta.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: We're on the same side here.

HANDLER: Exactly. I'm just trying to help you out.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Help me help you help America.

HANDLER: (Laughter) Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today's show was produced by Brittany Cronin. It was fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph). THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

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