Rounds Urges Administration to Take Steps to Address Food Production Crisis
PIERRE—U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) today wrote to Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the coronavirus task force, to emphasize the need to take immediate steps to address the nation’s food production crisis. The letter calls for the administration to develop a plan that simultaneously protects food workers and public health, as well as addresses the nation’s on-farm and on-ranch livestock emergency.
Excerpts of the letter:
“Production of food is critical to the nation, to citizens of South Dakota and to our state’s farmers and ranchers. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only harmed public health, but it is also doing severe damage to South Dakota’s economy. Our farms, ranches and Main Street businesses are in trouble and nowhere is the pressure being felt more acutely than our livestock industry.”
“The inability to develop a commonsense national plan to protect food workers and public health, while simultaneously operating the nation’s critical food infrastructure, is failing farmers, ranchers, food workers and consumers.”
“COVID-19 is the enemy and putting our energy into getting food processing plants running again, protecting public health and dealing with the near-term critical emergencies is where we need to focus.”
Full text of the letter:
Dear Vice President Pence:
Production of food is critical to the nation, to citizens of South Dakota and to our state’s farmers and ranchers. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only harmed public health, but it is also doing severe damage to South Dakota’s economy. Our farms, ranches and Main Street businesses are in trouble and nowhere is the pressure being felt more acutely than our livestock industry.
As of Friday, April 24, 2020, roughly 25 percent of our nation’s beef packing capacity and 30 percent of our nation’s pork packing capacity is idle, and this number is predicted to get worse in the coming weeks. While the food industry works with state and local authorities to assure employee health, a major crisis is beginning to erupt behind the scenes. The supply of market-ready cattle, hogs and poultry on farms and ranches is rapidly building to a breaking point.
Put simply, cattle, hogs and turkeys do not read government orders. They continue to eat and grow every day and as they grow, they rapidly run out of room in the feedlots and barns as new calves, piglets and chicks enter the system.
Producers are doing everything they can to manage the animals in their care during this emergency. They are changing feed rations to slow growth, they are moving animals to other lots and barns and they are slowing the breeding of new livestock, but the clock has run out.
The inability to develop a commonsense national plan to protect food workers and public health, while simultaneously operating the nation’s critical food infrastructure, is failing farmers, ranchers, food workers and consumers.
The nation’s farms and ranches are rich with meat, grains, milk and vegetables while restaurants are closed and grocery store shelves stand empty. We have seen stories of milk being dumped down drains and produce rotting in the fields, but the story is about to become much worse. Livestock producers spend their lives growing animals to feed others and many are now facing the unthinkable: having to destroy the animals they have raised.
Nowhere is this situation more dire than the pork industry.
Because pork processing plants are not operating in many areas, the nation’s pork producers are preparing to euthanize millions of healthy animals in the coming weeks, and the beef industry is not far behind. This is shocking, unprecedented and unacceptable for the most powerful nation on earth. We must act immediately to mitigate this disaster.
Therefore, I urge the following actions:
1 - Balance Public Health While Operating Critical Food Systems. This is not a question of one or the other, but an imperative of doing both. Immediately.
The Department of Homeland Security has designated agriculture and food as critical infrastructure that must operate during this emergency; the same as hospitals and national defense.
We need clear federal guidance to the nation’s governors and public health officials on how to achieve this balance. The lack of clear guidance has led to a patchwork of well-intended, but wildly inconsistent state and local approaches to managing public health while trying to operate food plants. The end result: farmers, ranchers, food workers and consumers are major losers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service and others need to act now as a team to provide clarity. No farm or ranch is the same and no food processing facility is the same. This guidance needs to be science-based, practical, flexible and applied consistently.
Critical food manufacturing facilities need to be prioritized immediately behind hospitals and first responders for access to personal protective equipment, rapid virus test supplies and antibody tests. If we want these people to work, we must make them confident their health and safety is being prioritized.
We have not closed hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores or manufacturing companies during the pandemic, yet all of these facilities have people working in close proximity daily. We need a better solution than stopping everything. It is simply not realistic.
The food system stoppages are now beginning to show up as increasing meat shortages in grocery stores which will inevitably lead to consumer fear and the obscene situation of higher food prices as animals and food are destroyed on the farm and ranch. This is unacceptable.
2 – Deal with the On-Farm and On-Ranch Livestock Emergency
Unfortunately, due to the slowdown and closure of meat processing plants over the past three weeks, we have reached the point where we are going to need to emergency euthanize millions of healthy pigs in the coming months. The scale of this on-farm and on-ranch tragedy will be written in history books as a failure of epic proportions.
The USDA needs to immediately issue an emergency order to activate an incident command center. This will provide a needed incident command structure to manage the problem with an eye toward animal welfare, farmers’ and ranchers’ mental health and safe disposing of the animals in a proper environmental manner.
We will support efforts by USDA to direct the meat processing industry to establish a system to allow some non-operating plants to serve as emergency locations to assist farmers and ranchers with depopulation.
The nation’s governors will need to work closely with the USDA, state veterinarians and industry to streamline these processes. Measures may include emergency declarations for temporary overstocking of facilities, identification of centralized disposal sites and mobilization of the National Guard to help farmers, ranchers and industry expedite this action with some semblance of humanity.
3 – Provide Funding to Implement the Plans
Right now, everyone is losing money: consumers, businesses, farmers and ranchers alike. And for livestock producers, adding insult to injury is the fact they are going broke and now also have to spend additional money to euthanize and dispose the very animals they have spent months and years raising.
Congress and the administration have appropriated nearly $3 trillion to help the nation deal with the impact of COVID-19. It only makes sense for the USDA to provide some funding to cover the marginal costs to operate the depopulation and disposal process and make certain it is done quickly and in a humane and environmentally responsible manner.
In sum, it is human nature to look for someone to blame in this tragedy. The fact is, COVID-19 is the enemy and putting our energy into getting food processing plants running again, protecting public health and dealing with the near-term critical emergencies is where we need to focus.
In the end, we are going to be judged by our ability to provide leadership and deliver immediate results. I look forward to working with you to accomplish these immediate actions.
M. Michael Rounds
United States Senator
CC: Sonny Perdue, Secretary, United States Department of Agriculture