Status of Potato Industry Amid COVID-19, Government Response

Published online: Mar 23, 2020 Articles
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Over the weekend, the National Potato Council sent out the following message:

On Monday, March 16, the National Potato Council offices went on mandatory working-from-home status. This status will remain in effect until further notice and in accordance with guidance from the District of Columbia and the Centers for Disease Control. 
Please email NPC staff at the following addresses with any questions or urgent needs. Despite not being in the office, we are highly accessible: 

Latest Congressional Actions 

On Thursday, March 19, Senate Republicans released their trillion-dollar proposal for a third COVID-19 response package, which will serve as a starting point for negotiations with the Democrats, who have already outlined their own $750 billion plan.  
The Republican plan would:  
  • Provide loan and tax relief to small businesses; 
  • Provide a $1200 tax rebate to individuals and $2400 to married couples; 
  • Provide up to $208 billion in collateralized loans and loan guarantees to severely distressed sectors, including $58 billion for airlines; and 
  • Address healthcare supply shortages and provide support for COVID-10 patients and health care providers.  
One component of the legislation involves guaranteed benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act. Given the temporary, seasonal nature of the U.S. agriculture industry, a growing number of associations are asking that reasonable requirements and limitations be placed upon these benefits to ensure that they fulfill their intended purpose, rather than encourage abuse and result in unintended consequences for both employees and employers. 
Majority Leader McConnell has said the Senate will remain in session until the package is passed.  
Meanwhile, in the House, two members have tested positive for COVID-19 and several others are self-quarantining. 

White House 

As part of the nation’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, on March 16, President Trump issued an updated Coronavirus Guidance for America. This guidance states that, “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”   
This guidance is intended to support state, local, and industry partners in identifying the critical infrastructure sectors and the workers needed to maintain the essential services and functions upon which Americans depend. Workers and activities defined under these roles should generally be excluded from mandatory “stay at home” orders in various states, though each state will exercise its own discretion. 
Ag and food workers defined as “critical” in this guidance include, but are not limited to: 
  • Farm workers to include those employed in animal food, feed, and ingredient production, packaging, and distribution; manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of veterinary drugs; truck delivery and transport; farm and fishery labor needed to produce our food supply domestically; 
  • Farm workers and support service workers to include those who field crops; commodity inspection; fuel ethanol facilities; storage facilities; and other agricultural inputs; 
  • Employees engaged in the manufacture and maintenance of equipment and other infrastructure necessary to agricultural production and distribution;
  • Employees and firms supporting food, feed, and beverage distribution, including warehouse; vendor-managed inventory controllers and blockchain managers; 
  • Food manufacturer employees and their supplier employees—to include those employed in food processing (packers, meat processing, cheese plants, milk plants, produce, etc.) facilities; livestock, poultry, seafood slaughter facilities; pet and animal feed processing facilities; human food facilities producing by-products for animal food; beverage production facilities; and the production of food packaging workers; 
  • Workers supporting the sanitation of all food manufacturing processes and operations from wholesale to retail; 
  • Workers supporting groceries, pharmacies and other retail that sells food and beverage products; and, 
  • Restaurant carry-out and quick serve food operations, including carry-out and delivery food employees. 
This week, NPC and 42 other agriculture organizations sent a letter to President Trump urging the “Administration to be mindful of the food, feed, and agricultural supply chain and workforce impacts on the ability of U.S. agriculture to meet the needs of consumers” as it creates rules to restrict the flow of transportation throughout the country. The group listed supply chain necessities including “seed, fertilizer, crop protection products, agricultural labor, equipment, feed and ingredients for food-producing animals, modes of transportation, the availability of required U.S. government inspection services, and daily movement of milk.” The complete letter can be found here
The Produce Marketing Association has provided this certificate that your employees can carry with them as they travel on food/ag business along with this certificate about transporting food/ag supplies. As the designation is a self-certification, various states may view these documents differently but PMA believes they should generally meet the requirements. 

Federal Government Response 

The federal government is engaged in a response across nearly all departments and agencies. The following are resources that are currently available and issues that are being worked on by NPC and colleagues in the agriculture industry: 

Department of Agriculture 

School Meals: One of the most significant actions that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made immediately after schools began closing across the country is to ensure that vulnerable students still have access to healthy meals. Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told the School Nutrition Association that “if schools are closed, we are going to do our very best to make sure kids are fed.” That statement was accompanied by several actions that waive certain school meal requirements to allow for appropriate social distancing in serving the meals. 
USDA also announced an initiative to deliver one million meals per week to rural students whose schools have closed because of the virus. The department is partnering with PepsiCo and the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, a food logistics company, to provide boxes with five days' worth of healthy, shelf-stable, individually packaged foods. 
Many public schools around the country that are closed are still providing meals to children through curbside pickup or grab-and-go options at schools, churches, and other community centers. At this time, these meals must comply with federal meal patterns, and that includes providing fruits and vegetables. Under the emergency feeding provision, schools are following summer food service regulations which means meals are available to any child under 18. Districts are doing a great job of communicating these sites and services via their websites and social media so we recommend you connect directly with local school districts for more information on what is happening in your area. Here is the current list of USDA’s flexibilities granted to states and schools during the pandemic. A map of districts closed due to COVID-19 can be found here
Food Safety: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA has published a set of FAQs on its website to explain that coronavirus does not appear to create food safety issues. The Q&As emphasize that USDA is not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging, although they also note that like other viruses, it is possible that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces or objects. Therefore, sanitary best practices should be used to prevent infection spread by surfaces.  
The USDA leadership responsible for FSIS inspection and AMS grading services also released a joint “Statement to Industry” addressing inspection continuity issues. In the statement, USDA recognizes industry concerns about the availability of USDA inspectors and graders and explains that FSIS and AMS “are prepared to utilize their authority and all administrative means and flexibilities to address staffing considerations.” USDA also emphasizes the importance of “early and frequent communication” and local considerations. In all, the USDA statements recognize the important issue of maintaining inspection staffing to support continued production but they generally provided few details.  
For stakeholder comments and inquires, the USDA has recommended the following contacts: 
 
School Meal Proposed Rule: USDA announced a 30 day extension for public comment on the school meal proposed rule that would impact fruit and vegetable servings at breakfast and lunch. Comments are now due April 22. 

Centers for Disease Control  

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have a comprehensive webpage that is being updated daily with relevant information about the scope, nature and federal response to the virus. That webpage can be accessed at this link
FAQs have been provided by several federal agencies on issues specific to their work, including USDAFDAFMCSA and OSHA

Farm Credit Administration

The Farm Credit Administration, which oversees a network of government-backed lenders for the ag sector, called on institutions to work with borrowers whose operations are affected by the virus. FCA Board Chairman Glen Smith said lenders can extend the terms of loan repayments, restructure debt obligations and ease some loan documentation terms for certain borrowers. 

Food and Drug Administration 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a new FAQ document to address numerous food safety and COVID-19 related questions, and also held an industry stakeholder briefing on March 18. During the briefing, the Agency noted that they not aware of any reports of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging.  
Since there is no evidence COVID-19 can be spread through food, an establishment would not be expected to place product on hold or initiate a recall if an employee tests positive. The Agency is working with the White House, USDA, CDC, the Department of Homeland Security, state governments, and the private sector to ensure that the US continues to have a safe and functional food supply chain. The Agency is also working with its federal and state partners to ensure that travel restrictions and quarantines do not hinder the food supply chain. 
The Agency put out a recent guidance indicating that FDA is temporarily suspending most onsite audits that enforce supplier verification requirements for three regulations promulgated under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These include: 
  • Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food; 
  • Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Food for Animals; and  
  • Foreign Supplier Verification Programs for Importers of Food for Humans and Animals. 
The Agency also announced that they have temporarily postponed all domestic routine surveillance facility inspections due to the pandemic. This includes but is not limited to food industry-related inspections.  
The FDA will continue to conduct domestic for-cause inspections if they are determined to be mission-critical, which includes inspections that are linked to recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks. While FDA typically does not announce when they plan to visit a facility for an inspection, for the time being they will pre-announce their arrival for the inspections that are conducted. 
They intend to provide a facility with five days notice in advance of conducting an inspection. The FDA’s announcement applies to federal inspections, including inspections conducted by state inspectors under contracts or cooperative agreements with FDA, however, it does not govern whether states can still conduct inspections under their own authorities. 
They also released guidance on food safety and COVID-19. It answers questions around what to do if an employee tests positive (in terms of the operation, what to do with potentially affected food etc.). 
For stakeholder concerns related to food safety and supply chain logistics, the FDA has recommended the following contacts: 
  • Businesses should contact FEMA’s National Business Emergency Operations Center at NBEOC@FEMA.DHS.GOV if they encounter issues with state or local orders that necessitate shutdowns or transportation restrictions or otherwise affect the supply chain.  
  • If companies have any food safety related questions, they should be directed to the FDA Food and Cosmetic Information Center at www.FDA.gov/FCIC.  

IRS

On March 20, the Administration announced that the April 15 tax filing deadline has been moved to July 15.  
Individuals will be able to defer up to $1 million without interest or penalties, which should benefit many small business owners whose taxes pass through to their individual returns, and corporations can defer up to $10 million, Mnuchin said at a White House press briefing. 

Small Business Administration  

The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering designated states and territories low-interest federal disaster loans for working capital to small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of COVID-19. 
SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans offer up to $2 million in assistance and can provide vital economic support to small businesses to help overcome the temporary loss of revenue they are experiencing. 
These loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact. The interest rate is 3.75% for small businesses. The interest rate for non-profits is 2.75%. 

State Department 

Last weekend, the State Department indicated that visa processing in its consulates and embassies would largely cease. This would impact the H-2A agricultural guest worker program which requires foreign workers (many originating in Mexico) to obtain visas before entering the U.S.  
NPC joined on a letter sent by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition to the State Department outlining our concerns and the need for immediate flexibility for the H-2A program. The solution asks for two things:  
  • The State Department needs to modify its current stance and instead consider all H-2A visa processing operations as essential (meaning they do not stop even if other activities are suspended); and,  
  • The individual H-2A petitions must be considered as emergencies (meaning they are elevated above other visas). This is appropriate given the risk to the U.S. food supply if these workers are unable to participate in vital operations during 2020. 
Secretary Perdue stated that USDA is aware of the concern that this visa processing situation is causing and the potential impact on food production. “We know these workers are necessary and we will make sure we are doing everything we can to get through this situation as safely and efficiently as possible,” said Secretary Perdue.  
On Tuesday, March 17, the State Department has indicated to USDA that Mexico’s consulates and embassies will prioritize processing returning H-2A workers that are eligible for visa waivers.   
Though helpful, this did not fully address the issue. Congressional offices began pressing the Administration to expand and enhance H-2A processing. Senator Risch (R-Idaho), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, personally called the Administration and subsequently put out the following statement late on Wednesday, March 8: 
“These are extraordinary times, and in times such as these it is even more critical that the people who put food on every American’s table have the full support of our government. I was very concerned to learn that the H-2A visa program was gravely impacted by the temporary closure of our embassies and consulates around the world, particularly in Mexico, due to the growing coronavirus pandemic. I am glad that in just a matter of hours, the State Department announced that the H-2A visa program is essential to our domestic food supply during this critical time. I will continue to work with Secretary Pompeo and his staff as they work to process H-2A visas expeditiously."
Beyond the Mexico situation, in South Africa, all H-2A visas will be processed as emergencies. Jamaica will likely provide similar prioritization as Mexico once their operations resume (they are currently entirely closed due to a positive case of Coronavirus in an employee). 
On Thursday March 19, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to help facilitate the identification of foreign and domestic workers that may be available and eligible to transfer to other U.S. agricultural sector employers.  
USDA and DOL have identified nearly 20,000 H-2A and H-2B certified positions that have expiring contracts in the coming weeks. There will be workers leaving these positions who could be available to transfer to a different employer’s labor certification.  
The data, available on farmers.gov/manage/h2a, includes the number of certified worker positions, the current employer name and contact, attorney/agent name and contact, and the worksite address. This information will be a resource to H-2A employers whose workforce has been delayed because of travel restrictions or visa processing limitations. Employers should be aware that all statutory and regulatory requirements continue to apply. Employers are encouraged to monitor www.travel.state.gov for the latest information and should monitor the relevant Embassy/Consular websites for specific operational information. 
USDA has set up an email address for specific issues on this situation at aglabor@usda.gov. 

Department of Transportation 

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has provided an Hours of Service rule waiver for those drivers with loads determined to be in aid of the COVID-19 situation. This waiver is not for all agricultural loads that qualify under the 150-mile exemption, but rather for trucks delivering food products to restock stores.  
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is monitoring the situation and will consider further exemptions as warranted. For further information please use the attached link.   
The following Q&A readout was taken from a FMCSA industry briefing held this week: 
Q: Does the emergency waiver apply to trucks moving from farms and hauling livestock to packaging facilities?  
Not under the current waiver. The situation was different on Friday (March 13th) when the waiver was issued. Essential products currently include food and health and safety products (such as toilet paper) going to stores. We recognize these issues are very intertwined, so this is an issue currently under advisement.   
Q: Will the waiver expand to other industries? Like fertilizer?  
We are considering waivers to any sector of the supply chain. If this issue continues, more things will fall under the declaration.  
Q: What foods are considered essential?  
The idea is to replenish stores with foods and other necessities. So those items typically on food shelves are likely going to fit. We’re concerned about mixed loads – concerned about TVs being sent to a superstore with a case of water – this is what we’re trying to prevent. We ask for cooperation with the regulated community to ensure there is no abuse. We won’t create a list of food items that are covered.  
Q: Intrastate travel? Example, one end of California to another?  
Yes, that is covered.  
Q: Does pet food qualify?  
No 
Q: Is mandatory 30 minutes rest, 11 hours of driving, etc. waived?  
Yes, if it is a covered load.  
Q: Are you considering an across the board waiver for all goods?  
No 
Q: Complete farm to fork waiver?  
That’s an issue under consideration and deliberation. The immediate concern was getting end-product to grocery stories, we were told inventory was plentiful, so that was not part of the emergency declaration.  
Q: If areas are quarantined, will goods be allowed to be delivered?  
We are working with local authorities. If you know of shipments being prevented, tell us.     
Q: What about packaging used by exempt products?  
We’ll have to get back to you. Goes back to the question of raw products. Those issues are being considered.  
Q: Documentation?  
Drivers don’t need any paperwork.