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The devil will always be in the details

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When investing taxpayer money in the long term, systemic changes are needed to better prepare the meat and poultry sector for the next pandemic.

By AUDREY J. ADAMSON

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (P.L. 117-2), recently signed by President Biden, authorizes $4 Billion to be appropriated to the Secretary of Agriculture (Secretary), in support of the food supply chain and agriculture pandemic response. Seems straightforward, but the devil will always be in the details.

Take a closer look. The Food and Agriculture Title lists specific actions that the Secretary “shall” take and sets specific funding levels. The balance of the money is given to the Secretary without attaching specified funding, guidance or goals or outcomes.

Of the $4 Billion, $2.75 billion is “shall” funding including: (1) $300 million to conduct monitoring and surveillance on COVID susceptible animals; (2) $100 million (subject to availability) to reduce overtime costs for inspections for small and very small, federally-inspected meat, poultry and egg facilities; (3) $47.5 million for Pandemic Response Administrative Expenses; (4) $2.5 million for the Office of Inspector General to conduct audits, investigations, and oversight; (5) $800 million is for the Commodity Credit Corporation to purchase and make available fresh agricultural commodities; and (6) $1.5 billion in farm loan and debt relief and technical assistance for socially disadvantaged farmers. In addition to this funding, Title II: Nutrition provides an additional $37 million is made available to purchase additional fresh food (fresh produce, dairy, eggs, and meat) for delivery within the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.

If you are counting that leaves $1.25 billion in spending that will be directed by Congress and the Secretary. This is where the devil resides.

No doubt, spending will be heavily influenced by industry and producer groups, academic and think tank organizations, unions, processing, packing, and food distribution companies, faith-based groups, non-profits, NGOs, and restaurants and food banks.

In my opinion, however, this is an opportunity to think BIG about resiliency in the meat and poultry sectors and to think beyond the immediate COVID crisis response. COVID showed that were not prepared. There will be another pandemic and or an animal disease outbreak and the current meat and poultry production systems are not prepared.

The World Health Organization estimates that 60% of human pathogens are of animal origin, meaning they are zoonotic. The Organization for Animal Health estimates out of the five new emerging new diseases per year, three of the are of animal origin. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 3 out of every 4 emerging diseases are of animal origin. There will be a global animal disease outbreak. There will be a next pandemic and it may well be a disease of animal origin.

Decades focused on “cutting costs” and the headlong drive for “increased efficiency” across the meat and poultry sector combined with brittle regulatory systems have left serious structural consequences. Resiliency and redundancy have been squeezed out. They are not revenue centers, just costs. Perhaps, this is why COVID has had such a devastating impact on everyone across the meat and poultry chain.

Building resilience back into the chain has a cost. This is not a cost that firms are enthusiastic about because it involves large up-front and additional maintenance costs. It ties up capital on something that may be used “once a century.” However, resilience is a classic example of case of a public good where there is market failure. It is costly and the benefits are not evenly captured by a single firm, industry, or stakeholder. Therein lies a role for the U.S. government to lead.

The American Rescue Plan of 2021 directs a great deal of money into the food supply chain and agriculture pandemic response. However, it leaves $1.25 Billion as unspecified. We have a generational obligation and responsibility to have tough and honest conversations about why the meat and poultry part of our federally designated “critical infrastructure” were so vulnerable. We need to think BIG and more broadly about how to build back resiliency in this sector.

Yes, this is deficit spending. And yes, the “shall” funding will help temporarily assuage the current impacts on both American farmers and ranchers and communities facing hunger. Increasing support for COVID-susceptible animal surveillance is a good start, but this is a bigger global issue. Offsetting inspection costs for smaller federally inspected meat processing plants will make them more economically viable, also a good start, but we need to think about how these more regionally situated plants and other kinds of processors and distributors can play a stronger role as part of a “national emergency critical infrastructure.”

Deficit spending without clear expected outcomes is bad policy. Building back resilience is essential and it is good public policy. We should take “a minute” to think BIG when investing taxpayer money in long term. Systemic changes are needed that better prepare the meat and poultry sector for the next pandemic.

Audrey J. Adamson is the former Vice President for Government Affairs for the National Pork Producers Council. Today, she is the founder and Principal of A2 Strategies, LLC.

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