Processors called weak link

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted both the importance and vulnerability of the domestic food system, say American agriculture and food industry leaders.

While farm production is more than adequate, sudden processing chokepoints can strangle supplies available to anxious consumers.

“Now we see what an important link that is in our food chain,” said Zippy Duvall, president of American Farm Bureau, in a discussion with two former U.S. agriculture secretaries, current Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and three food processing and aid leaders.

“We have to get the processing part of this right…. We have to get back to 100 percent capacity because we all know as agricultural people that pipeline leading especially animals to harvest… is full.”

The shock to the food system from COVID-19 wasn’t just from problems at packing plants, but also due to the fact that the restaurants and institutions where Americans get 50 percent of their food abruptly shut down, noted Perdue.

“We had one of those 50 percent chains stop suddenly,” he said, likening the impact of the food system disruption to the impact of a car crash on an interstate highway.

“Things back up very quickly.”

American and world news has been filled with accounts of packing plants going down, milk being dumped, farm workers being unable to keep working and grocery stories running out of basic food products like flour.

But Duvall said food production and distribution has held up well considering the enormity of the COVID-19 shock.

“This is not a food issue. This is not a supply issue. This is a supply chain… adjustment,” he Duvall.

“We’ve got heroes from one end of the chain to the other.”

The term “hero” was used repeatedly for packing plant employees, grocery store workers and other frontline staff who have kept the food chain together.

“This has caused a new… appreciation for those who work hard every single day to deliver the food, produce it and process it,” said Dan Glickman, former agriculture secretary under Bill Clinton.

However, the huge increase in unemployment has sent millions more to U.S. food banks and placed more demand on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food stamps program.

Katie Fitzgerald of Feeding America said an extra 17 million Americans are now being fed by food bank food because of the crisis. Forty percent of those people have never used a food bank before.

The slaughter plant problem remains a chokepoint in the food system, said Julie Ann Potts of the North American Meat Institute. Even with many formerly closed plants now back up and running, overall capacity is down 24 percent for hogs and 31 percent for cattle, due to the combination of some facilities remaining closed and others slowing line speed to allow for greater worker safety.

She praised the government’s willingness to relax labelling requirements so that meat that had been destined or received by the food service industry could be redirected to consumers, and praised the administration of President Donald Trump for an executive order under the Defence Production Act to keep meat plants operating.

“That was a sign that we really needed to have that kind of federal involvement in getting our plants back up to speed,” said Potts.

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