Monday, October 2, 2023

U.S. poultry industry fulfilling its role as ‘essential’ during crisis

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By David B. Strickland

Poultry Times editor

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — During this unprecedented time of health crisis stemming from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the nation’s poultry and agriculture industries are working non-stop to meet the nutritional needs of not only the United States, but the world.

Those involved with poultry, as well as all agriculture, have long known its importance to people’s sustainability, but during this current crisis the food industry has been recognized as “essential.”

On March 15, President Trump issued an updated Coronavirus Guidance for America, which defined critical areas deemed essential by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry . . . such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule,” the guidance states.

“As the nation comes together to slow the spread of COVID-19, everyone has a role to play in protecting public health and safety,” said Christopher Krebs, director of the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in a statement. “Many of the men and women who work across our nation’s critical infrastructure industries are hard at work keeping the lights on, water flowing from the tap, groceries on the shelves, among other countless essential services.”

Safe supply

The USDA and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration are also stressing the importance of keeping a safe food supply available for everyone.

“During this COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA is working around the clock to make sure that Americans have access to safe food and medical products,” said Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, FDA commissioner. “The agency is continuously examining the global supply chain to identify any concerns and assess the availability of the products Americans need most.”

USDA’s Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach and USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Mindy Brashears recently sent a letter to stakeholders reassuring that the U.S. food supply is being delivered safely and timely.

“As leaders of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Agricultural Marketing Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service we can assure you that the agencies are committed to ensuring the health and safety of our employees while still providing the timely delivery of the services to maintain the movement of America’s food supply from farm to fork,” Ibach and Brashears said in the letter. “As we come together as a country to address this public health threat, know that the 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.”

Praise for food producers

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has also praised those involved with the nation’s food supply as heroes.

“I want to speak from my heart to all you folks out there that are working at the front lines of our food supply chain,” Perdue recently said in a video message. “You know, we’re spoiled in America. You’ve provided such abundant, healthy, wholesome, affordable, available food that we take you for granted. And for all you people from the people who are stocking those shelves, from the people who are driving the trucks to get this food to us, the people who are processing the food and the people who grow the food and all the vendors that supplied our farmers to help them grow this food whether it’s fertilizer or feed or seed or any other input. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. And I know these are uncertain times, but I just want to tell you from my heart, as an American citizen, I am so grateful for what you’re doing.”

Perdue added that, “I know there’s been a lot of confusion about teleworking and all that kind of stuff. You all have jobs that can’t telework, and we know that. We’ve got our food safety inspection workers on the front line, day in and day out to make sure our food is safe, just like we always have. But you’re the real heroes in this effort In World War II we actually had agricultural deferments because the food supply chain was so important. And that’s essentially what you all are doing. From the person that makes the equipment, that supplies the farmers, to the seed, the fertilizer, the farmers that go day in and day out to produce this food and all through the processing, and the packaging, and the logistics, and the stocking of the shelves, to greeting and checking out people — you are vital to our economy and you are vital to our needs of America having a strong food supply.”

Food safe from COVID-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that this novel coronavirus has only been noticed to spread person-to-person; adding that no evidence shows transmission from food.

The CDC adds that, for safety, always clean your hands before eating or preparing food.

“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” the CDC said in a release. “In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated or frozen temperatures.”

The CDC also noted that it’s always important to maintain the safety basics of keeping meats separate from other food, handle and prepare all foods safely, cook meat to the proper temperature and make sure perishable foods are refrigerated.

Chicken, turkey & eggs

Safety and keeping up supplies

The nation’s poultry representative organizations are noting that during this health crisis the focus of the industry is employee safety, while also continuing efforts to keep poultry products available.

“The industry’s top priority right now is to protect our employees while trying to keep chicken on the shelves,” said Tom Super, the National Chicken Council’s senior vice president of communications. “We commend all of the people — in the hatcheries, the feed mills, the processing plants, the transportation sector and our growers — who are all showing up to work during these difficult times helping to feed our families.”

“Chicken companies are taking a number of measures to keep supply flowing, including extra shifts on weekends and shifting some chicken that was destined for foodservice into grocery stores and supermarkets,” Super added. “We’re not seeing any disruptions in chicken production or the supply chain due to COVID-19 at this time.”

“The industry is also taking several additional measures to protect employees, including but not limited to issuing questionnaires, temperature checks, extra distancing where possible, increased biosecurity and sanitation, hand sanitizer stations and constantly keeping employees informed about all of the latest information and guidelines. And coordinating with the appropriate local, state and federal health officials,” he said.

The turkey industry is also stressing the importance of employee protection.

Joel Brandenberger, National Turkey Federation president, added, “The number one focus of NTF member companies right now is to protect the health and safety of their employees while continuing to provide customers with the products they need. Processors have implemented enhanced safety protocols, including extra cleaning and sanitizing measures and employee health checks.

“The food and agriculture workforce is essential every day, and that’s even more evident as the turkey industry responds to the surging demand for protein at retail. We are grateful for the hard work and dedication of the men and women on the farm, in the plant and everywhere in between who play a role in the production, processing and delivery of turkey products.”

Brandenberger added that, “Turkey processors have done a very good job during the crisis of safely delivering product to customers, including shifting foodservice products to retail where possible. The federal government, along with state and local governments, have supported these efforts by ensuring the industry can continue to do its job. Consumers can have full confidence that they will be able to get the fresh, wholesome turkey products they want.”

Cartons of shell eggs have also been flying off store shelves.

Chad Gregory, president and CEO of United Egg Producers, said, “United Egg Producers is proud and grateful for its farmer-members and their teams, who have remained committed to working round-the-clock to assure that families, grocery stores and foodservice providers have access to a stable supply of safe, nutritious eggs.”

“Like everyone, we are deeply concerned about this crisis and about the health and safety of those in our communities, country and around the world, as well as our egg farmers and their employees and loved ones,” Gregory added. “During these unprecedented times, we remain firmly committed to our responsibility of producing food for our nation.”

From nationwide to state-level, poultry industry representatives are stressing efforts being made to maintain safety.

“Food safety and the safety of our employees remain our top priorities,” said Mike Giles, Georgia Poultry Federation president. “These measures include enhanced sanitation routines at processing facilities; heightened employee screening for any signs of illness; requirements for employees to leave the work site and seek medical attention if health symptoms warrant; and increased frequency of hand washing/sanitation for employees.

“In normal times, poultry processing facilities employ practices that are designed to reduce pathogens within production facilities for food safety purposes. Given the serious nature of the COVID-19 situation, poultry operations are using the expertise that they have in these sanitation and hygiene areas to expand these activities to protect employees from exposure and the spread of COVID-19.”

Giles added that, “Poultry processors and egg producers will continue to do all that they can to produce the food that is vital during this recovery period, while implementing science-based measures to protect employees working in our facilities.”

A great year for exports

With new trade agreements beginning, especially with China, the U.S. poultry industry is noting its diligent work in maintaining export trade flow.

“We expect 2020 to be an excellent year for poultry exports as we have regained access to China and have experienced relatively minimal problems as a result of the coronavirus,” said James Sumner, USA Poultry & Egg Export Council president. “The week that our first shipment of chicken paws landed in China, the first cases of coronavirus were reported. That delayed the development of the market by about six weeks as China was basically shut down, including its ports. So, our timing could have been better.

“The good news is that by mid-March the congestion in the Chinese ports was beginning to clear, and we now see business returning to near normal. We got an unexpected bonus in early March when we were able to obtain an exemption from retaliatory tariffs on U.S. poultry. That enables U.S. chicken and turkey to compete on a level playing field with imports from Brazil, Europe and Russia.”

“Our industry’s main concern has been the availability of reefer containers for shipping product, especially to Asia,” Sumner said. “The global slowdown has had an impact on having containers in place and available where they need to be so that product can be shipped.”

U.S. chicken is filling a need in the Chinese protein market that has been affected by African swine fever.

“But now it appears that most companies are again shipping chicken paws as expected, along with increasing volumes of leg quarters and drums and turkey to meet the meat protein deficit China faces as a result of its African swine fever crisis,” Sumner noted. “Although the number of new outbreaks of ASF appears to have lessened, the disease still exists and likely will for some time to come, so our product will be needed.”

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