Food suppliers blame inflation for price hikes. Lawmakers say they're padding the bill.

Some companies "appear to be passing costs on to consumers" and "taking advantage of inflation to add greater burdens,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said.

In 2020, supermarkets saw sales increase by an average of $63 billion a month, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

The levers of government are being primed for an escalating crackdown on excessive food price inflation, which the Biden-Harris Administration and its Congressional allies believe is partially a result of over-concentration and lack of competition in the food and grocery supply chain.

With inflation at its highest point in almost 40 years, American families are facing higher prices at the checkout and are making do with leaner meals. Once deemed essential, workers in grocery stores now say they feel expendable, and have been rewarded with only marginal increases in wages they say leave them unable to cover their own rising food costs.

Meanwhile, producers and grocers are exploiting the pandemic to jack up prices more than necessary to pass on increased costs to consumers, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., blasted in a new letter sent to the heads of Kroger, Albertson's, and Publix and shared exclusively with NBC News.

“Your company, and the other major grocers who reaped the benefits of a turbulent 2020, appear to be passing costs on to consumers to preserve your pandemic gains, and even taking advantage of inflation to add greater burdens,” Warren wrote.

In 2020, supermarkets saw sales increase by 11 percent over the prior year, an average of $63 billion a month, according to the Census Bureau's monthly Retail Trade report. It's a trend that has continued into 2021.

But instead of reinvesting record profits to raise wages and improve working conditions, these companies initiated stock buybacks and boosted executive compensation, the letter noted. 

In June 2021, Kroger announced a $1 billion stock buyback program, in late 2020 Albertsons a $300 million stock buyback program, and Publix increased quarterly dividends during the first nine months of 2021 by over $70 million. 

“Your companies had a choice: They could have retained lower prices for consumers and properly protected and compensated their workers, or granted massive payouts to top executives and investors,” Warren wrote to the grocery chains heads. “It is disappointing that you chose not to put your customers and workers first.”

The stores did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment.

"Current price increases are due to a combination of supply chain challenges — from labor and transportation shortages to higher fuel costs and increased consumer demand," FMI, the Food Industry Association, a trade association representing largely food retailers and wholesalers, said in a statement released to NBC News. "Grocers are doing everything they can to absorb these cost increases, and we ask consumers to continue working with us as we recalibrate our supply chains."

Supply chain snarls, labor shortages, and surges and shifts in consumer demand have stressed production and distribution channels over the past 18 months, raising costs for producers and retailers. But critics charge they also created an opportunity.

“The real culprits behind rising prices at the checkout line are extractive private actors who have created knife-edge supply chains ill-equipped to handle fluctuations in demand,” said Rakeen Mabud, managing director of policy and chief economist at Groundwork Collaborative, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank. The group has been advocating for policymakers to make use of their tools to intervene, such as enforcement actions, taxation, competitive investments, increasing labor rights, and flexing anti-trust laws to bring prices down.

The argument goes that if there were more robust competition, then any retailer who tried to raise prices in excess of costs would lose business to cheaper rivals.

The White House says it is using what tools it has to “crack down on some of the bad behavior,” citing “a lot of evidence” that meat processors, who stand between farmers and grocery retailers, are “putting out price increases that are way above the costs they are incurring” due to inflation, according to a senior White House official.

“Antitrust law provides remedies to prevent extreme concentration or the abuse of market power,” said Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council. One thing the administration can do and has done is “appoint people who intend to enforce antitrust laws robustly,” he said, noting that price-fixing investigations have been pursued in similar cases in the past.

This week, President Joe Biden called for hearings to investigate the meat industry, which has seen extreme price hikes during the pandemic.

“I’m urging the Congress to hold hearings as to the concentration of power in a few hands controlling the food processing side of the equation,” he said in an interview Tuesday with local TV station WHIO-TV of Dayton, Ohio. 

The administration has already taken several actions to begin to address concentration in the meatpacking industry, such as more robust enforcement of the Packers and Stockyard Act, which sets fair competition and trade practices in the livestock, meat, and poultry markets; reporting on beef-processor prices; and providing grants to smaller processors to increase capacity.

Major beef processor Cargill denied the White House claims that there was insufficient competition in the market.

“It is a supply-and-demand-driven market, and so to suggest that there’s manipulation or taking advantage, I just don’t agree with it,” CEO Dave MacLennan told Bloomberg this week.

In late November, the Federal Trade Commission announced a wide probe into the grocery industry, asking nine key players to provide "detailed information to help the FTC shed light on the causes behind ongoing supply chain disruptions and how these disruptions are causing serious and ongoing hardships for consumers and harming competition in the U.S. economy.” The agency sent the orders to Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Associated Wholesale Grocers, McLane Co., Procter & Gamble, Tyson Foods and Kraft Heinz.

Alleged anti-competitive behavior by larger supermarkets has also driven up the cost of gas and extended travel times for especially rural and lower-income customers who must search further to get essential and at-times hard-to-find items like paper products and meat that “power buyers” have muscled away from smaller stores, local and regional grocers described in comments submitted to the FTC in late September.

Members of the National Grocers Association, an industry trade group, charge that larger chains have been effectively hoarding hard-to-find items, demanding that manufacturers and wholesalers supply them first. Smaller stores are left to accept smaller allocations, or none at all.

"While many independent grocers have struggled throughout the pandemic to stock must-have products, dominant retailers have received preferential treatment," the trade association asserted.

"Suppliers often enforce arbitrary minimums on certain products to effectively make them exclusive to power buyers. Others brazenly deny access to independents to entire product lines without justification while the same products fill the shelves of their chain competitors," it continued.

Jimmy Wright, president of Wright’s Market, an independent grocer in Opelika, Alabama, told NBC News that while his business doubled overnight when the pandemic hit, he has struggled to keep items on the shelves. 

He finds himself consistently at the back of the line when items are in short supply, he said. While the big chains gets their orders filled, Wright says he only gets a small allocation. And when the shortages are such that the big chains only get smaller allocations, then his orders go unfilled.

When Mason jars became a hot item from consumers jumping into canning during the pandemic, his supplier sent him a letter saying that due to "unprecedented levels of demand" they would be cutting him off for five months "in order to allow our production team to build inventory."

But Wright said when he walked into a large retailer across town, he saw that the jars were being featured in a prominent end-cap display. 

“Power buyers have so much influence over manufacturers, and smaller retailers like me can’t get ahead,” Wright said. 

“There’s nothing more disappointing to me than, in the middle of this crisis, when we’re always the first to take care of the community, to look people in the face and say I can’t help you because I don’t have product in store.”

CORRECTION (Dec. 17, 10:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Albertsons announced a stock buyback program. The announcement came in late 2020, not 2002.