May 20, 2020

USDA could require produce processors to continue production during COVID-19

Two U.S. federal government agencies have reached an agreement where produce processors would be forced to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, like meat processing facilities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food & Drug Administration (FDA) released a Memorandum of Understanding May 19 stating that an executive order could be invoked under the Defense Production Act that would require fruit and vegetable processors to continue production.

In announcement was made through a statement attributed to Mindy Brashears, Ph.D., USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, and Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response.

“This is an important preparedness effort as we are approaching peak harvesting seasons, when many fruits and vegetables grown across the U.S. are sent to be frozen or canned. The MOU creates a process for the two agencies to make determinations about circumstances in which the USDA could exercise its authority under the Defense Production Act (DPA) with regard to certain domestic food resource facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold foods, as well as to those that grow or harvest food that fall within the FDA’s jurisdiction.

“While the FDA will continue to work with state and local regulators in a collaborative manner, further action under the DPA may be taken, should it be needed, to ensure the continuity of our food supply. As needed, the FDA will work in consultation with state, local, tribal and territorial regulatory and public health partners; industry or commodity sector; and other relevant stakeholders (e.g. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to chart a path toward resuming and/or maintaining operations while keeping employees safe.

“We are extremely grateful to essential workers for everything they do every day to keep our pantries, refrigerators and freezers stocked. All of the food and agriculture sector — whether it is regulated by the USDA or FDA — are considered critical infrastructure, and it is vital for the public health that they continue to operate in accordance with guidelines from the CDC and OSHA regarding worker health and safety. As we work to get through the current challenge together, we remain committed to workers’ safety, as well as ensuring the availability of foods, and that our food remains among the safest in the world.”

Protecting frontline workers

The USDA and FDA have been working to ensure that frontline workers in food facilities and retailers that have remained on the job during this crisis have the information and resources they need for business continuity and to continue working safely, which includes mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19. We continue to provide information and update frequently asked questions on both the FDA and USDA’s websites.

The agencies will continue to work with facilities and farms, CDC, OSHA, and state, tribal, and local officials to ensure facilities and farms are implementing practices consistent with federal worker safety guidelines to keep employees safe and continue operations.

The agencies are also working with other federal partners to assist the food and agriculture industry in addressing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), cloth face coverings, disinfectants and sanitation supplies.

United Fresh response

Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh Produce Association’s vice president of food safety and technology, issued the following statement on May 20:

Jennifer McEntire
Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh Produce Association

“As United Fresh’s food safety expert, I want to provide a perspective on (the May 19) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between USDA and FDA, “to help prevent interruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities, including fruit and vegetable processing”. FDA regulates the safety of most foods including fresh produce. The Department of Agriculture serves many roles, including regulating the safety of meat and poultry products. You’ll remember a few weeks ago when President Trump signed an Executive Order to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to reopen meat and poultry operations. It was all over the news!

“This MOU allows FDA to work with USDA to intervene, under the DPA, if there is a risk of supply chain disruption for FDA-regulated foods, not just meat and poultry. Is this a blessing or a curse? No one wants the attention that meat has experienced. I know many of you have undertaken extreme efforts to protect your employees, which should limit the possibility of a facility shut down. That said, when it comes to disease transmission within communities and facilities, things are more complex than they may initially appear. In the event that a company is “doing everything right”, the DPA does afford protection against liability, another issue our government relations team has been pressing forward on. Collaboration between USDA and FDA is a good thing, but I hope we never need to call upon this MOU.

“A basic tenet of food safety is to focus on prevention, and the same holds true during this pandemic. That’s why we’ve been developing guidance with other trade associations, which you can find at www.feedingus.org. We’re expecting CDC guidance specific to harvesting, soon. And we’re in constant communication with officials at USDA and FDA.

“Working on pandemic-related issues can be depressing, and I’m thankful for the “bright spots” that keep me energized and motivated, namely the Produce Safety Immersion Program, sponsored by Renaissance Food Group at the Gold level and Ecolab as a Silver sponsor. I’m so proud of the initiative and camaraderie shown by these 14 individuals who are still early in their produce safety careers. These are the future leaders who will keep us focused on prevention, and be prepared to respond swiftly if crises occur.

“Another ray of sunshine today has been the recognition of the 2020 Women in Produce honoree, Sarah Frey. From one woman to another, congratulations Sarah! And if you’d like to congratulate her yourself, join me on June 16 during United Fresh LIVE! for the official celebration where Sarah will share her story.”


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