In the short week following Memorial Day, conversations about the coronavirus (and food production) took place in the shadows of other events. Meanwhile, in food:

  • Relief to farms, food banks and families led influential conversations.
  • Recovery in the meat supply chain prompted scrutiny of reporting on infected workers.
  • Resolution of questions around recent E. coli outbreaks in leafy greens emerged from long-awaited FDA findings.

“It’s no small task to distribute billions of dollars of perishable food in a way that also helps the ag sector. But we must aim for the best we can, better each day!”

Chef José Andrés (Twitter)

Digging Out

Influential figures weighed in on relief programs that aim to get food from farmers to food banks and families in need. The Farmers to Families food box has advanced in fits and starts since its May 15 rollout. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) opened for applications on May 26, two months after supply chains broke down due to restaurant closures.

  • At a May 19 press conference, President Trump touted the $19 billion allocated to the two programs as “dramatic action to support our nation’s farmers, ranchers, and growers.”
  • On May 21, chef and philanthropist José Andrés tweeted his support: “The food box program is a great concept — buying from struggling farms & producers to distribute to families unsure where their next meal may be coming from. Helps keep our farmers producing, our communities fed, and our food supply chain functioning.”
  • Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich and Ryan McCrimmon reported on May 27 that a San Antonio-based event-planning company had yet to distribute food boxes under its $39 million contract. And Agri-Pulse noted on May 20 that food boxes did not meet demand in Vermont.
  • While many groups thanked the administration for aid through CFAP, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives worried that certain fruit and vegetable crops would be left out and Environmental Working Group’s Scott Faber argued large farms will get disproportionate funds.
  • Nation’s Restaurant News reported that eight executives of restaurant chains met with President Trump to request an extension of Paycheck Protection Program benefits.
  • On May 27, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and nine other democratic senators proposed a bill with $8 billion to boost supply chain infrastructure for food banks and processors.

Test and Release

As processing plants reopen and production picks up, the meat industry is expanding COVID-19 testing for workers and navigating privacy concerns about releasing data. Despite these challenges, there are signs that recovery is underway.

  • The Wall Street Journal explored challenges that big companies, including meat companies, face in testing asymptomatic workers “as they try to get back to business and prevent outbreaks on the job.”
  • The New York Times questioned why testing and worker illness reporting is not required, and, in a special report, The Times looked at virus spread in rural areas where Seaboard Foods is releasing testing data.
  • According to data from the Food & Environment Reporting Network, more than 18,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 28.
  • On a positive note, Meatingplace shared USDA Economic Research Service estimates that show a 4% increase in overall meat production in 2021.
  • Agri-Pulse reported progress on the “Phase One” trade deal with China as U.S. pork and beef exports continued to rise.
  • Business Insider profiled small meat processors and butchers who are seeing a boom in business after larger processors reduced production.

Not Easy Being Green … and Leafy

On May 21, FDA published findings of an investigation into the three E. coli outbreaks in leafy greens late in 2019, which caused nearly 200 illnesses in several states. The findings concluded that adjacent grazing land was the most likely contributing factor with all three outbreaks.

  • Food Engineering reported that the FDA released a 2020 Leafy Greens Action Plan “because of the reoccurring nature of outbreaks associated with leafy greens.” The plan advances work in prevention, response and addressing knowledge gaps in the safe handling of leafy greens.
  • After reading the whole FDA report, The Counter’s H. Claire Brown pointed out that the recent outbreaks did not occur in romaine lettuce farms near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), but rather from a lettuce patch downhill from where “low volume” cows had grazed.
  • Consumer Reports advocated for the FDA to have more power in investigating livestock operations to trace pathogens.
  • In a “Captain Obvious” post on his blog, food safety attorney Bill Marler explained the findings in detail and quipped, “People say what about sh*t and hillsides?”

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

Chicken Sammich, The Colonel’s Way

Indicating at least a partial return to normal conversations about food, The New York Post reported that KFC fired the next salvo in the chicken sandwich war with a “jazzed up” sandwich which will undergo a limited test starting next week in Orlando. Perhaps 2020 might not be lost after all.

Ketchup Police

Must be summer, because the food industry has hot dogs on its mind. These bits can’t stand up to the tubesteak electronica we shared last week, but first, The New York Times’ Alyson Krueger explained that Nathan’s and Feltman’s are having great success amid the pandemic. Next, the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council published a comprehensive guide to hot dog etiquette. Notably, the Washington, D.C.-based industry group admonished: “Don’t use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18. Mustard, relish, onions, cheese and chili are acceptable.” Nice, but we thought that was a Chicago thing.

Food & Wine & Ag

Food & Wine, the venerable publication typically dedicated to the culinary side of the business, shared a new Purdue University digital dashboard that tracks the coronavirus’ impact on agriculture by county. Author Mike Pomeranz interviewed Purdue ag economics expert Jayson Lusk about the dashboard, which focuses on farmer and farmworker health and estimates that ag production is at a very low risk.

Automated Packers

On May 25, Wired posted a deep dive about livestock slaughter in Denmark where meat companies have avoided widespread closures compared with the U.S. The author attributes the success of these advanced plants to automation, which allows less human interaction and hence fewer COVID-19 infections. You can take a virtual tour of the Danish Crown plant here.

A Sign of the Tines

In case the thing you really missed about the restaurant experience was eating with a feeble fork, Politico reports that many establishments are turning to plastic cutlery and paper plates in order to meet CDC guidelines for minimizing the spread of COVID-19. Ever the optimists, environmentalist group Greenpeace called the recommendations “an ecological disaster.”

On a Quest(love) for Change

The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson hosted a virtual potluck on Food Network on May 28. The percussionist told NPR, “It’s not just like you eat your meal and you leave. The rule that we have is that when we get up from this table, we have to learn something better about ourselves that we never learned before.”