On Wednesday April 1st, the Produce Marketing Association held their second virtual town hall meeting. These meetings are planned to be held every week on Wednesday at noon ET and are designed to bring together the fresh produce and floral industries for ongoing discussion and support during the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. This week, representatives of the USDA and the FDA were present at the meeting to give the attendees an update on what they are currently doing to help the industry and how the industry can provide their support.
Greg Ibach of the USDA spoke briefly on the USDA’s position and resources during these times and provided an update on how the department is working to support the industry. He said: “The USDA stands in an excellent position to be able to be receptive to your concerns and we have the resources to be able to follow up on these concerns and implement solutions. We are continuing to stay in close contact with the states and making sure we are servicing the industry and are working together. Our federal inspections are deployed where they need to be, and they can be redeployed or repositioned in those states if necessary. We are committed to making adjustments where they are needed.”
Extension of certifications
One of the adjustments made by the USDA is that of the extension of audits for certifications by 60 days. This means that certifications such as GAP that were due to expire between now and May will be extended. This is done to allow the USDA to continue to bring up new GAP certifications to new customers through this time.
Industry support is vital
Ibach also called on the industry’s support. He stated: “In the crop sector alone, the AMS collects 14,000 data points daily. This market news provides us a great window into what is happening across the industry and allow our decision makers at the highest level to determine the best paths forward on potential relief. This reporting, however, is voluntary and we want you to continue to work with us and participate in this so we can continue to have the best information available to back our decisions during this time.”
Outside of data reporting, the USDA also called on the industry to highlight their specific issues. “We know many of you are embracing the challenge of transitioning from foodservice to retail. We are committed to making adjustments wherever necessary to allow additional flexibility for the sector in these trying times. So, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us to let us know what problems you are experiencing, and what specific challenges you are facing. We need to be aware of these issues before we can address them,” Ibach said.
He concluded by reassuring the audience that the USDA remains open for business and that they can be reached to answer questions. “I also applaud our employees who continue to work and are on the front lines to ensure that the necessary processes are completed to get food to the consumers. I encourage everyone to be as cooperative as possible with the graders and inspectors.”
Border inspections continue
The USDA also answered some audience questions during the meeting. One of these questions was regarding the expectations for the imports coming from Mexico for the next two months. Bruce Summers emphasized that the expectation is that produce will continue to move across borders. “The USDA is available at the borders to conduct the necessary commodity and quality inspections. Everyone recognizes the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables and expect that the shelves will continue to be stocked. To do this, food needs to continue to be able to move across borders.”
Additionally, the USDA clarified that while the pre-clearance program has been interrupted, this won’t prevent products from being brought into the US. “The president’s directive for Americans to return stateside halted some of our programs. The intention is obviously to resume these programs when the pandemic has subsided. While there have been interruptions, these jobs are still being done here, stateside and the border inspections are still being conducted,” Summers explains.
FDA emphasizes COVID-19 is not transmitted through food
LeeAnne Jackson of the FDA spoke at the meeting to explain the FDA’s latest efforts in relation to the COVID-19 response. She began by emphasizing that coronavirus is not transmitted by food. “There is no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with the transmission of this virus. That is why, if an employee is tested positive for COVID-19, there is no need for closures or recalls. We do not anticipate that food products need to be withdrawn from the market even if a worker is positive. If a worker is tested positive, employers should alert their workers to the possibility of their exposure, while maintaining the patient’s confidentiality,” Jackson explained.
It is also important to note that there are currently no nationwide shortages of food. “Though there’s empty shelves, this is an issue of unprecedented demand, not a lack of capacity to produce, process and deliver. The manufacturers and retailers alike are working to keep the shelves filled and there are currently no widespread disruptions reported in the supply chain,” Jackson said, adding: “the FDA is working with food manufacturers and grocery stores to closely monitor the food supply chain for any shortages.”
Most inspections and audits halted
The FDA is temporarily postponing domestic and foreign inspections of farms and facilities, Jackson reported. “The health and safety of the FDA investigators and inspectors, as well as the workers at the farms and facilities, is the most important consideration. For domestic inspections we’ll only conduct onsite inspections when there is the potential of an immediate threat to public health. Inspections outside the US deemed critical will be judged on a case-by-case basis and we do have other tools and authorities to help ensure the safety of imported foods, such as inspections at ports of entry.”
On-site audit requirements have also been temporarily halted. “The enforcement of on-site audit requirements for supplier verification under the Food Safety Modernization Act has been temporarily halted. These audits are designed to confirm compliance with safety standards, but travel restrictions may prevent them taking place during the pandemic. Facilities are expected to select an alternative way for verifying compliance with food safety standards, such as sampling product or a food safety records review.”
Importance of working together is emphasized
"We will pick up where we left off when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we are working with the food industry to help ensure that the regulatory safeguards we have in place, such as the food safety modernization act and other best practices recommended, will help keep employees safe. We’ll get through this only by working together,” Jackson concluded.
The Produce Marketing Association and the USDA ask that industry members continue to communicate their specific challenges so that they can work on addressing them.