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The impact of the coronavirus has been felt across every sector of the food industry, from the farms and fields where food is produced, raised and grown, to those charged with processing and delivering that bounty to consumers.

Through it all, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been tasked with a very critical mission: keeping the national food supply intact. Greg Ibach, undersecretary for the marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA weighed in on his agency's response to the COVID-19 crisis during the May 7 episode of the Dairy Stream podcast.

Ibach’s agency is at the center of the federal government’s response to dairy and livestock producers trying to manage the unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as those facing the meatpacking industry.

"We are working very closely with the CDC and other agencies trying to figure out how to keep those processing plants, whether they be for live animals or milk processing, open and operating," Ibach said. "We're also looking at regulatory programs to see if there are any options to provide regulatory relief to be able to have products make it from the dairy farm to the consumer or to address supply chain adjustments."

The USDA joined in the concerted effort to stem the spread of the virus following major outbreaks at beef, pork, and poultry processing plants across the US. Many of the large processing plants have been forced to temporarily stop production amid the escalating number of positive cases that have emerged among workers.

Ibach says his agency has worked with governors and state health department officials around the country helping them to implement personal protective equipment as well as social distancing guidelines to keep those facilities open.

"This helps to give confidence to employees to show up for work as well as to make local health departments feel comfortable with those plants operating," Ibach said. "What we've seen now is, based on how the food processing industry has responded, many epidemiologists feel that the chance of community spread has virtually been eliminated within those processing plants. In many cases...food processing employees are safer at work perhaps than they are in their communities."

Ibach says the USDA has received a "boots on the ground" perspective by listening to farmers and industry organizations.

"We've had lots of conversations that have helped us to not only craft programs but to make adjustments to our regulations," he said. 

The USDA has already rolled out several assistance programs including the purchase of up to $3 billion of agricultural products to be distributed to those in need under the Families First Coronavirus Response (CARES) Act. Most recently, the USDA announced that $317 million in dairy products will be part of the Farmers to Families Food Box program.

And the agency may be called upon to deliver more assistance.

"I think we're going to see the coronavirus have a long-term impact on the restaurant and foodservice industry, so I think that the added demand at the retail grocery stores is going to continue to be there," he said. "We're going to also see continued higher unemployment rates and that means that people will want to access food banks and food assistance programs. The USDA needs to be ready to provide additional assistance through those outlets as well for an extended period of time."

While Ibach understands that farmers haven't had much to be optimistic about over the last months, he says the impact on the food supply chain has been eye-opening for their customers...the consumers.

"I believe consumers are going to develop a new appreciation for their food. The fact that we're facing shortages in grocery stores helps consumers understand that food doesn't just magically 'show up' on the shelves; there is a food system that requires not only farmers and ranchers, but the processing and distribution industry it needs to travel through to get to their shelves," Ibach said.

Despite the downturn in the global economy, Ibach says that many economies around the world are still looking to the US for food. He noted that trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea and future agreements with the EU are positive developments.

"There's always a real reason to be optimistic and as dark as these days are with prices and the challenges we face, there can't be anything but hope that things are going to get better and we know they will," Ibach said.

The podcast is co-produced by the Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, sister organizations that fight for effective dairy policy in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

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