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Roundtable discussion focuses on COVID-19 food supply impact

House Ag Committee members meet with Brashears and Kiecker of FSIS on reducing impact on food supply chain.

House agriculture subcommittee on livestock and foreign agriculture chairman Jim Costa (D., Cal.) hosted a roundtable on June 25 in which U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety Dr. Mindy M. Brashears and Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) administrator Paul Kiecker answered questions about the impact of COVID-19 on food supply chains.

“Over the last four months, America’s food supply chain has been turned upside-down,” Costa said. “Shelter-in-place orders and social distancing have closed our schools and restaurants. However, the production and processing of food is clearly still an essential service. As a result, getting food to America’s dinner table while ensuring worker safety is critical.”

Members of the committee had an opportunity to ask Brashears about USDA’s efforts to protect their own inspectors in plants and their coordination with the Centers for Disease Control & the Occupational Health & Safety Administration pursuant to the President’s April 28 Executive Order while also simultaneously ensuring that healthy and nutritious food gets to America’s dinner tables. With a reported 25,000 food processing workers and numerous USDA inspectors having tested positive for COVID-19, Costa indicated in a statement that “we have to do much better.”

Costa requested that Brashears and Kiecker continue to work with the subcommittee on their priorities for reducing the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain.

“The subcommittee looks forward to the feedback that USDA will provide as negotiations on future response packages continue,” Costa said in a statement. “It’s critical the subcommittee maintain its important oversight role because the production of food and fiber for all Americans is a national security issue. We look forward to continuing to work with USDA on all related issues.”

In a statement in May, House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D., Minn.), subcommittee chair Filemon Vela (D., Texas) and Costa and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D., Del.), called for the investment of $250 billion in testing for coronavirus in the next pandemic legislative aid package, including the prioritization of tests for frontline food and agricultural workers.

The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the situation for a farm economy that was already facing headwinds. “Farmers now have to deal with uncertain supply chains amid a health crisis that threatens both their health and their financial well-being and displaces thousands of hard-working people who pick, process and produce food,” the representatives said.

They added that "while there are legitimate concerns on the part of consumers about shortages in our grocery stores, we have to remember that the men and women who make our food chain go are also concerned — for their safety. Whether they’re picking fruit, working a line in a meat packing plant, driving a refrigerated truck or manning a cash register in a local grocery, they dwell on the unknowns of this pandemic. They wonder how they will protect themselves, how will they recover and keep their families healthy if they get sick and what will happen if they lose their jobs.

"As we try to find solutions to each of those questions, we do know that if we test more broadly and frequently, we can get a better picture of how the virus is impacting our communities,” they said in a statement.

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