Seven weeks into the U.S. quarantine, coronavirus issues continue to dominate most, but not all, conversations about food production. Continued threats to U.S. meat production stirred heated discussions, with more plants closing and processing capacity greatly reduced. Market values for livestock have tanked, as farmers scramble for alternative plans for their animals. Yet, an executive order from President Trump demands that meat production continue.

Still, some positives have emerged. There is no evidence COVID-19 is transmitted through food. Spring planting on farms across the country is off to the best start in years. While restaurants remain closed, food delivery is in high demand and, as evidenced by recent earnings reports, some food companies are finding success in the new normal.

“While doing everything we can to keep employees safe and healthy, the biggest challenge has been inconsistencies among the states and many localities in enforcing CDC guidelines in plants … This patchwork approach is posing grave risk to the supply chain.”

Mike Brown, President, National Chicken Council

Ordered to Operate

Stress on the nation’s meat supply ramped up this week as processors confirmed more COVID-19 cases among workers and announced additional closures. All this fueled more concerns about the state of the meat supply, compelling the White House to take emergency action to keep plants open.

  • On April 25, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson warned in an open letter in The New York Times: “We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. … This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”
  • OSHA and CDC published interim guidance that outlines employee risk mitigation and control planning strategies for meat and poultry companies.
  • On April 28, President Trump issued an Executive Order under the Defense Production Act to direct meat and poultry companies to “continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible.”
  • In an April 29 response to the order, NextDraft editor David Pell quipped: “It’s a risky place to put a steak in the ground; playing a game of chicken with workers’ lives — one that could turn meat processing plants into slaughterhouses.”
  • Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich scrutinized the USDA’s slow response to the farm crisis at a time when food banks have unprecedented demand.
  • Feedstuffs reported on a new USDA coordination center to help livestock farmers identify “potential alternative markets” for animals that cannot be sent to closed processing plants.

#Plant2020 Up and Running

A year ago, extreme rains and a late thaw delayed planting in 25 states, resulting in farmers seeking $3 billion in federal disaster relief. While farmers face different difficulties this year, planting is not one of them. Amid many coronavirus-related concerns about the nation’s food supply, the weather has so far cooperated, inspiring optimism about this year’s crop.

Coronavirus Pulse Check

Outside of the meat industry, leading voices in the food industry continued to address the variety of ways that the coronavirus crisis affects individual businesses and the food system as a whole.

  • The James Beard Foundation and the National Restaurant Association provided resources to help restaurants plan for resuming slightly-more-normal business operations.
  • Facing higher demand for grocery delivery, Instacart announced plans to hire 250,000 new “personal shoppers.” That’s in addition to the 300,000 the company has hired since March 23.
  • The Intercept reported that workers from Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart and Target planned to strike today, May 1, for increased compensation and protective equipment.
  • A wide array of companies released first quarter earnings this week. Many reported lower revenues, including Pilgrim’s Pride, Unilever, Aramark, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Yum! Brands. But some companies actually saw boosted bottom lines: Cargill, Mondelez, PepsiCo and Domino’s Pizza.
  • After Congress refreshed funds for the Paycheck Protection Program, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC on April 28 that large companies could face penalties for accepting loans meant for small businesses.
  • In recent weeks, ethanol companies that faced lower demand turned to making hand sanitizer. However, the FDA put the kibosh on that activity, according to Reuters, due to risks of carcinogens created during the process.

Worth Reading.

Some important points of view worth checking out this weekend.

The Comfort Foods of Home

Bloomberg food writers teamed up to summarize pandemic eating at home: “There is no trend, exactly, other than this: People want comfort. They also want to eat their way to stronger immune systems. They’re stress baking, but they’re also eating healthier than they would have at restaurants. Avocados are in. Pork belly out. Frozen pizzas and instant noodles are selling out.”

I Think It’s Done?

On April 29, science journal PLOS ONE published research on how home cooks in several European countries determine whether chicken is fully cooked and safe to eat. Eyeballing color, feeling texture, checking temperature and measuring time were the top contenders. But “cooking time based on experience” (read: gut instinct) proved to be the prevailing method.


Maddie Oatman from Mother Jones studied the restaurant scene in Atlanta, which Gov. Brian Kemp declared open for business as of Monday, April 27. The operators Oatman interviewed expressed anxiety and uncertainty about reopening, including Bob Amick, who owns an influential restaurant group in town: “On one hand, we need to be open to be able to survive, but we only have one opportunity to get it right, there are no second chances.”

Salad Bar, Tossed

Trade publication Food Management detailed the path forward for institutional foodservice. Prepackaged grab-and-go meals, “smart fridges” and preordering surfaced as likely trends to expect. On the other hand, self-serve food bars will almost certainly close due to social distancing recommendations and fears of cross-contamination.

Frugality Forever?

New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao wondered whether new cooking habits will persist after restrictions end, similar to the habits that outlasted the Great Depression. Rao noted, “Frugality forms a pattern that repeats itself in different times, among different communities, for different reasons.”

Supply Chain Q&A

On behalf of Purdue University on April 28, ag economist Jayson Lusk and professor Candace Croney penned a Q&A explaining many of the difficulties food production is facing: supply chain troubles, farmers destroying crops and euthanizing animals, meat plants closing, food supply shortages and food safety in light of the coronavirus crisis.