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USDA ensuring no food safety disruptions amid coronavirus

Assurances offered for ongoing food inspections during COVID-19 outbreak with impact at processing plants.

Producers and markets are looking for any assurances that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking proactive steps to mitigate potential food supply chain disruptions. Top leaders at USDA said the agency is rising to meet the challenges associated with the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, according to a joint statement from USDA undersecretary for food safety Dr. Mindy Brashears and USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs Greg Ibach.

Ibach and Brashears said the agencies are prepared to utilize their authority and all administrative means and flexibilities to address staffing considerations in providing the timely delivery of services to maintain the movement of America’s food supply from farm to fork. “Field personnel will be working closely with establishment management and state and local health authorities to handle situations as they arise in your community. As always, communication between industry and government will be key. We are all relying on early and frequent communication with one another to overcome challenges as they arise,” they said in an industry statement.

Planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations and as such, FSIS is closely monitoring and tracking employee absenteeism to plan for and minimize impacts to operations. FSIS is also working to prioritize inspection at establishments based on local conditions and resources available.

In this time of much uncertainty, Ibach and Brashears said they recognized that many have questions about how the department will continue to ensure that grading and inspection personnel are available.

“We have all seen how consumers have reacted to the evolving coronavirus situation and how important access to food is to a sense of safety and well-being. It is more important than ever that we assure the American public that government and industry will take all steps necessary to ensure continued access to safe and wholesome USDA-inspected products. As we come together as a country to address this public health threat, know that USDA remains committed to working closely with industry to fulfill our mission of ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply and protecting agricultural health," they said.

Moreover, as some states take proactive steps to limit the spread of the virus, Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) and Rep. Dusty Johnson (R., S.D.) wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue strongly urging that all meat processing facilities be deemed “essential” operations. “The protein supply chain for beef, pork and poultry functions requires consistency,” the lawmakers stated.

“We encourage you to use all of your available authorities to maximize flexibility to guarantee USDA inspectors are available for on-site inspections and ensure that our processing facilities maintain current productivity levels,” Tillis and Johnson wrote. “Additionally, we ask that you collaborate with industry partners in developing and releasing information to inform the public about USDA’s planned actions.”

Jayson Lusk, head of agricultural economics at Purdue University, said it isn’t far-fetched to imagine worker illnesses getting to the point that plants have to temporarily shut down on a scale that is at least as large as the August fire at a Kansas beef plant, which removed about 5% of the nation’s beef processing capacity. “One difference is that destroying a plant via fire is not the same as temporarily closing plants due to lack of healthy workers; one resulted in a long-term price adjustment, while the latter is more likely a temporary price fluctuation,” he said.

“One thing that makes me nervous even about temporary closures, if large scale, is the animals that have been placed to be market weight in the next few weeks. While feedlot cattle can likely remain on feed a few weeks longer with relatively small changes in profitability, that is less true for hogs and particularly chickens,” Lusk said. “Meat supply chains are optimized for efficiency and low-cost production, not necessarily for flexibility and resiliency.”

The Livestock Marketing Assn. (LMA) said it is actively working to keep livestock auction markets functioning while following the rapidly changing field of guidance and mandates for businesses in light of COVID-19. With respect to public attendance at livestock auction markets, LMA is aware that many states and areas are enforcing varied crowd size limits and have mandated restrictions on operation of cafés or other food services. LMA is working with markets on a case-by-case basis to evaluate all parameters and impacts on their sales and strongly suggests markets develop contingency plans accordingly.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said it supports Trump Administration guidelines announced to maintain the continuity of critical U.S. infrastructure, including the food supply.

"We are committed to maintaining the core infrastructure of America's food supply: farms," said NPPC president Howard "A.V." Roth, a pork producer from Wauzeka, Wis. "Pork producers and other farmers take seriously the special responsibility we hold for keeping people fed. Telecommuting is not an option for us; we are reporting for work as always while taking all necessary precautions to protect our health and the health of those we work with."

Dr. Michael Dykes, president and chief executive officer of the International Dairy Foods Assn., whose members represent the full dairy supply chain -- from dairy cooperatives to dairy processors to retailers -- reported that, at this time, the nation’s dairy industry is experiencing no interruptions.

"Our association is in close contact with federal agencies and the White House to ensure transportation routes and supply lines in different regions of the country remain free of disruption. These routes are crucial to commerce and public safety and must remain unobstructed,” Dykes said. "At present, at retail facilities across the country, milk -- a nutritious family staple -- remains affordable and available. We are working closely with the USDA to remain flexible in how dairy processors get milk to schools and school districts who are continuing to provide meals to the millions of children who need them each day, despite closures, through distribution at schools, churches, parks and other community sites."

In light of consumer concern over food supply disruptions, Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, tried to ease concerns over food shortages and the ability of the dairy supply chain to meet demand.

“U.S. dairy farmers are stewards of a product that’s harvested around the clock, 365 days a year, and they understand the importance of steady production as well as steady consumption. The U.S. food supply chain is more than capable of meeting demand, and consumers should be reassured that milk and dairy products will continue to be produced and available in the coming weeks and months,” Mulhern said.

“Dairy supplies aren’t experiencing production interruptions at this time, and dairy farmers and processors will continue to do what they do best: produce safe, quality products every day for consumers in the U.S. and worldwide. We will vigilantly work with all aspects of the dairy supply chain to ensure these products get to everyone who needs them and that -- as has always been true -- dairy will remain something consumers can count on,” Mulhern added.

Food & Water Action issued a statement calling on USDA to halt implementation of its New Swine Inspection System, which would allow for increased slaughter line speeds. “We call on USDA to stop implementation of this controversial inspection system and urge that slaughter line speeds be reduced in all slaughter facilities -- pork, poultry and beef -- where there is inadequate USDA inspection and plant employee staffing,” Food & Water Action executive director Wenonah Hauter said.

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