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Industry seeks labor solutions in light of COVID-19

Pork supply chain concerned about labor fallout, and dairy and chicken industry closely monitoring situation.

The fallout from an ongoing labor shortage facing various sectors of agriculture could significantly worsen due to the impact of COVID-19. The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) expressed its concerns in a letter to U.S. government officials this week, and others are closely monitoring the situation.

NPPC's concerns regarding COVID-19 are labor specific, the group said. There is no evidence that pigs can contract this coronavirus strain.

In a letter to President Donald Trump and other Administration officials, members of Congress and state governors, NPPC called for expedited solutions to address the need for more workers on hog farms and in pork plants. It also called on federal, state and local governments to work together to develop a response to COVID-19 that protects public health and, whenever possible, supports animal care plus minimizes disruptions to the U.S. pork production supply chain and consumers. NPPC also called on the Administration to develop support plans for hog farmers if labor-related bottlenecks in the supply chain prevent hogs from being marketed.

"School closures preventing parents from going to work and caring for their animals are already a concern in farm and plant communities," said NPPC president Howard "A.V." Roth, a hog farmer from Wauzeka, Wis. "The specter of market-ready hogs with nowhere to go is a nightmare for every pork producer in the nation. It would result in severe economic fallout in rural communities and a major animal welfare challenge."

The U.S. pork industry relies on foreign labor and needs a stable workforce. Even without the additional challenge presented by COVID-19, the labor shortage threatens to increase production costs and food prices for consumers. Existing visa programs are designed for seasonal agriculture, and reform is needed to address the animal care and other requirements of year-round livestock agriculture.

Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said, “Like all other businesses, our members are working with the federal, state and local governments, are communicating with employees and have response plans in place to prevent, contain and respond to possible COVID-19.  Labor is a constant challenge in the manufacturing industry, and we have long supported year-round occupational visa program, but we have yet to see any disruption in production due to this situation.”

Dairy farmers from National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) member cooperatives and state dairy associations were visiting U.S. Senate offices Wednesday and Thursday as part of a fly-in calling for an agricultural labor bill that could be reconciled with a plan the House approved last year to provide the stable, secure labor force U.S. dairy producers need.

“COVID-19 holds the potential to add further stress to already-strained farm work forces,” NMPF spokesman Alan Bjerga noted. “This week, NMPF members met with senators from both parties as part of an organizational fly-in specifically devoted to discussing dairy’s dire labor situation, and dairy farmers made it clear to the senators they met with that the coronavirus only makes it more urgent to pass legislation now. Our leaders advocated for passage of a Senate bill that could be reconciled with legislation the House passed last year and provide dairy farmers with the year-round farm labor visas our industry needs while also stabilizing our current workforce. We’ve made it a point to be proactive on this issue, and lawmakers know that labor is top of mind for dairy."

Currently, the North American Meat Institute said it is working with member companies regarding the safety of their employees and advising them to be aware of Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and local health agencies’ actions and plans. The institute also created a page on its website dedicated to coronavirus.

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