A coordinating structure that was first established in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is diligently working to protect US food production and avoid potential COVID -19 disruptions in the food supply chain. It’s not been easy.

However, compared to the coordination that existed in previous times and especially in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, “we are so many light-years beyond where we were,” says Clay Detlefsen, Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Environmental Affairs and Staff Counsel for the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). He also serves as the private sector chair of the Food and Agricultural Sector Coordinating Council (FASCC).

Detlefsen said that Katrina was his “baptism into this arena” and it was a “horrible, horrible” experience compared to what he is seeing now. The FASCC is comprised of a Government Coordinating Council and a private sector coordinating council. He says that the Council has been dealing with COVID-19 for many weeks.

“Every time we have these crisis-type of events - whether it's a hurricane or other  – we start weighing in and trying to connect private sector information with the government information so the government can handle what's causing concerns and problems,” he explains. “Basically, it’s about sharing information and trying to get the government to understand where we need them to do something and where we need them to just stop doing things.”

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Here are four examples that Detlefsen said his group is currently discussing in light of COVID - 19.

  1. There are concerns about food processing facilities being shut down if a worker who has been identified as testing positive for Covid-19 reports such to his or her employer. He says that one way to handle the situation is for the firm to first address the employee, then employee-to-employee contact issues, deep clean the facility to make sure there are no issues, and then reopen.

Detlefsen says that process is generally consistent with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as USDA. “But we know that a lot of these decisions are done by local authorities who may or may not follow all of those guidelines. Extended periods of shutdown for food facilities will make getting food to the grocery stores even more difficult.” So that’s one area where resolution is needed, he adds.

  1. Truck drivers are being questioned about their travel activity over the past few weeks and sometimes asked to shut down. There are questions like: Did you go to a foreign country? Did you go to New Rochelle, New York? In addition, some individual communities have curfews while workers are trying to get to work and provide the food Americans need. “Yet they are being detained by local authorities who want to know why they are not following the curfew,” he said.

Detlefsen says that, “if it was just 50 states then we would have 50 places to go to correct the problem."  But cities and other communities have their own rules. That's actually "been a problem in many, many disasters” and ends up hurting people, he adds.

  1. The latest guidance from the CDC today is that no more than 10 people should go out in the same place at a time. Some food company workers or saying: Well, I work with a lot of people in my food processing plant. Why doesn't that CDC limit apply to me?

Detlefsen thinks that’s an issue that needs to be much more thoroughly explained and noted that USDA and others have been applauding workers for staying at their jobs.

  1. The Trump administration waived hours of service rules for “emergency” food deliveries, but it’s not exactly clear how it applies. “If you look at the wording of it, it’s a little ambiguous and needs to be vastly improved because it’s much more restrictive than originally thought,” Detlefsen said.  “Clearly, more work is needed in that area.”

Individual food companies are already trying to be proactive on addressing some of these issues.

For example, in the dairy industry, some processors are taking the temperatures of employees before they enter the plant, says industry consultant Mike McCully. That’s on top of the fact that dairy processing plants are already very sanitary and are fairly-automated so workers rarely need to interact. He’s also hearing that, even truck drivers who deliver milk to plants are being sent to separate break rooms so they no longer interacting.

As the outbreak of COVID-19 continues to unfold and new challenges emerge, Detlefsen says he will continue to gather information from processors, trade associations, media and others.

“The trade associations are working together like crazy and I think we're all doing a good job. We're working really, really well together and our partnerships and interactions with the government agencies have been phenomenal. We just have some tough problems to deal with and we're doing our best to do that.”

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