There have been several recent events of note that will impact meat and poultry producers and processors. The recent election of President-elect Biden means there will be new leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). President-elect Biden will also have the opportunity to appoint new leadership for the USDA Office of Food Safety. In addition to the transition, we can anticipate several policy items arising that will impact the meat and poultry sector.
WHO WILL LEAD BIDEN’S USDA?
Since the election results became apparent, two candidates have emerged as potential candidates for Secretary of Agriculture: former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio. Sen. Heitkamp previously served on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and is viewed as a moderate Democrat that would be attuned to traditional farm country interests. Congresswoman Fudge serves on the House Agriculture Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations.
Sen. Heitkamp is viewed as someone in the mold of the traditional Agriculture Secretary; President Trump previously recruited her for the position. Congresswoman Fudge would be a departure from the traditional USDA Secretary, but she has helped to write multiple Farm Bills and is a strong proponent of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food programs, which account for approximately 80% of USDA’s budget.
It is unclear if the Biden Administration will dramatically alter the course of food safety regulation, which is typically a bipartisan issue. We may see some of the initiatives started during the pandemic by Secretary Perdue, such as the Farmers to Families Food Box program, scaled back in favor of SNAP benefits. One item we can expect is that USDA will place a greater emphasis on combating climate change, although it is unclear whether the Department would seek any changes affecting the meat and poultry industry.
VACCINE DISTRIBUTION TO MEAT AND POULTRY WORKERS
Based on promising results from large-scale trials, it appears that at least two COVID-19 vaccine candidates may receive emergency use authorization before the end of the year. Given the limited vaccine supply and the monumental task of vaccinating the entire country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has prepared a vaccine distribution plan to distribute doses to high priority groups first. The priority groups are: (1) healthcare personnel; (2) non-healthcare essential workers; (3) adults with high-risk medical conditions; and (4) people 65 years and older.
In November, a coalition of food industry trade associations, including North American Meat Institute, sent a letter to President Trump asking that his administration prioritize food industry workers as essential workers when vaccine distribution begins. The vaccines will be distributed under state programs. There is hope that meat and poultry workers will be able to gain access to the vaccine within months. This will be a positive step to protect workers and eliminate COVID-19-related disruptions.
NPIS LINE SPEED PROPOSAL
On November 11, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) submitted a proposal to raise line speed limits to 175 chickens per minute in New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) establishments to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB review is the final step before an agency’s proposed rule can be published in the Federal Register, which means we can expect to see FSIS’ proposal soon. The current line speed limit for NPIS young chicken establishments is 140 chickens per minute. FSIS has approved numerous line speed waivers to allow NPIS establishments to raise their maximum line speed to 175 chickens per minute. Under the proposed rule, NPIS establishments would no longer have to receive a waiver.
Although the proposed rule will be published under the Trump Administration, President-elect Biden’s USDA will be tasked with reviewing comments and determining whether to move forward with the proposal. The proposal does not appear to seek to alter the maximum line speed limit for NPIS turkey establishments.