Keeping Food Supply Chain Running during COVID-19 Pandemic is Critical
Maintaining a steady, stable supply of food at the grocery stores is an important part of our nation’s supply chain that can be easy to take for granted. Because agriculture is South Dakota’s number one industry, we are more closely aware of some of the struggles in the food supply chain – particularly for our farmers and ranchers – that can occur. The past several years of low commodity prices, trade disputes and market disparity are prime examples. Despite this, most of us do not question there will be a steady supply of meat, produce and other food stocked on our grocery shelves at all times. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, creating new and unprecedented challenges for all sectors of our economy, including our food supply chain.
Because of COVID-19 outbreaks, many meat processing facilities have closed down. The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls received national attention after a severe COVID-19 outbreak infected hundreds of employees and caused the plant to shut down. And there are examples just like this across the country. As of May 1, approximately 25 percent of our nation’s beef packing capacity and 40 percent of our nation’s pork packing capacity is idle, with a risk of getting worse. The supply of market-ready cattle, hogs and poultry on farms and ranches has been rapidly building to a breaking point. 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. As livestock continues to grow, producers are facing a difficult decision of what to do with them if processing facilities are not operating, and unfortunately some of these animals will have to be euthanized.
Fortunately, some action has been taken to help keep the meat supply chain moving. Following a letter I sent to President Trump, the president invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to declare meat processing plants as critical infrastructure. Under the Executive Order, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is directed to make certain America’s meat and poultry processors continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible. This means that the industry will be able to reengage employees, working closely with the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to make sure these processing plants can be opened safely and efficiently. This should help our farmers and ranchers by eliminating a chokepoint in the food supply system.
I’ve also been working with administration officials to address the on-farm and on-ranch crisis for producers who are unable to process all of their livestock. On April 26, I wrote to Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration’s COVID-19 response, urging him to implement an incident command structure to allow for safe and efficient euthanization of excess livestock.
Our agriculture sector is feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic just like the rest of our economy. They need help, and we’ve got to continue to work closely with the entire food processing chain to make certain we can continue to put food on the table for American families. I’ll continue to work with the administration and stakeholders to protect the health of our food processing workers, and get idle plants up and running as quickly as possible. And I’ll continue working to develop a plan to help livestock producers address the crisis on their farms and ranches.