As the COVID-19 public health crisis expands across California, Agri-Pulse spoke with CDFA Secretary Karen Ross on the efforts her department is leading to ensure the safety and reliability of the food supply. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

1. How are you and your staff holding up through this?

I have the best staff in the world. I know I brag about them all the time, but we have adapted so quickly to this new way of doing business, and the staff has been terrific. We're learning a lot about business continuity.

2. In responding to the crisis, where has CDFA been focusing its efforts?

First was just getting ourselves equipped to do a very aggressive telework policy, and we implemented it very rapidly.

Then, we identified essential functions that would continue, and shared that with our industry so they would know what to expect from us, and then the types of biosecurity and additional measures that we would take to prevent any unintentional spread of the virus. That's taken quite a bit of time.

We've had way too much practice in California in recent years with doing emergency response. We're very familiar with our Emergency Operations Center. We almost immediately activated what is called Essential Services Function 11, which is food and agriculture. That's the one that we lead. We're also part of the critical infrastructure and transportation essential services functions.

There's a lot of time going into those processes, which are very important because it brings a centralized way of knowing all the different moving parts we have. We're used to responding to emergencies that are isolated areas. This is the whole state, all the time, real-time decision making.

3. How would you say agriculture in California is facing a different set of circumstances?

One is just how much product is already been planted and harvested, especially the harvested piece of that.

When you look at a sudden stop in so many activities, with regard to what we have here and we're putting into the distribution channels, slightly more over half of the food that is sold and consumed in this country on a daily basis goes into food service and restaurants. The other half goes to retail. We've got distribution channels and relationships in our fresh produce sector that have been built around servicing the food service.

All of a sudden, restaurants closed, conventions aren't being held, hotels are empty, and there's a lot of product that's been displaced. It happened very immediately. Contracts were getting cut. Truckloads were being turned back and it's in the coolers.

A big part of what we've been doing the last 10 days is working on how we can capture that food at a time where we have more people at our food banks than we've had in over a decade and make sure we can salvage whatever we can.

We’re working with the industry on the proposals they're putting forward to Secretary Perdue for the CARES Act and the relief funds that will be coming from that.

Obviously, immediate repercussions to the beef sector. Of course, our dairy situation is severe. But unfortunately, that's happening across the country.

Karen Ross on Zoom

Sec. Ross spoke with Agri-Pulse's Brad Hooker and Sara Wyant on Zoom. 

4. How are you coordinating with the private sector right now when they have roadblocks they're trying to overcome?

If they didn't have my cell number before, they do now. I'm a 24/7 kind of employee. We've been reaching out to industry, but of course they also reach out to us.

We're also really blessed in California that part of our infrastructure is our county agricultural commissioners. They operate under our statutory authority as well as the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Oftentimes, the issues first surface locally, and then they're brought to us.

The members of our State Board of Food and Agriculture are like our eyes and ears out in their local communities. We've been hosting conference calls and we have points of contact within our department, across all of our divisions, that work almost directly on a daily basis with a number of industry members. We feel like we have a good sense of what's happening out there.

5. Is the administration considering a pause on procedures for new regulations until after the emergency order is lifted, as farm groups have requested?

A number of those requests are still being evaluated. A lot of the initial response has been related to public health issues. Some of the things that were more eminent, we're trying to handle on a case-by-case basis.

As we feel like we're in a better position with our response to the public health crisis, we’ll be looking at the immediate as well as the long-term planning that's necessary for recovery. You want to start planning for recovery, even when you're in the midst of what feels like will never be the end of a horrible situation.

There are a number of requests around environmental regulations or other types of new regulations. With trying to discern which ones would make potential sense for a blanket hold, as of right now, a lot of them have been put on delays for two weeks or 30 days so we can reassess the situation. It's premature to say how that will be ultimately handled.

6. How does the industry prevent food waste?

The program we started in partnership with the California Association of Food Banks a decade ago is Farm to Family. It was primarily to make sure that at those points in the season when you have excess that it could be turned into access. We've had a longstanding relationship with our food banks to take our seasonal products.

Right now, we're working with the distribution channels to see where we might be able to get some additional storage. The cold chain is always going to be an issue for that. They've got pretty good capacity.

One thing we're working on with a Food Crisis Task Force across all agencies is to identify where there might be some available assets that could be dedicated to this.

I also want to caution - none of us likes to grow our food and then have to farm it under, but turning it back into the soil is not always a bad thing when you think about the nutrients that that's adding to the soil.

What's really heartbreaking right now is to know how severely affected our dairy families have been with this dramatic drop in prices and then to start disposing of milk that's in excess right now.

7. How bad is the milk dumping in California right now?

Ours just started. We got notification because of our environmental regulations with our regional water quality control boards. The boards have to be notified and they’ve approved the protocol in six of our milk sheds.

We just got notification of the first dumping that occurred this past weekend. It has not been severe, but we do calculate that we have at least 10% excess milk. This just happens to be spring flush. This just happens to be prime season for that much milk. But when you take butter and all the foodservice stuff out of the equation, you can't process it all. Hopefully USDA will be able to implement those relief dollars rapidly.

8. Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Farmers, ranchers, farmworkers and what they do has never been as appreciated in such a tangible way as it is right now.

I hope when we get to the other end of this, that newfound appreciation for the people who are at the beginning of that food chain becomes evident at the restaurant table or in the preparation of a meal at home, with a new sense of understanding and appreciation by all of our consumers.

We know food is our connector. It does help us build community. In sad times and in happy times, food is what brings us together. We will get through this and we will have another day of great big family and block party celebrations around good food on the table.

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