Washington Insider -- Thursday

The Food Supply is Safe

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Senators Call for Actions on Trade Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

With the COVID-19 situation expected to extract a heavy toll on the U.S. economy, a group of Senate Finance Committee Republicans are calling on President Donald Trump to take several actions on the trade front, including tariff waivers on medical products and broadening the tariff exemptions.

“One area where you have immediate tools at your disposal to decrease the economic harm from COVID-19 is trade policy,” said the lawmakers in the letter spearheaded by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. They noted that one area where there are “immediate tools” to “decrease the economic harm from COVID-19 is trade policy.”

The lawmakers called on Trump to work with other countries to limit or remove trade restrictions on medical products needed in the COVID-19 fight. Lawmakers want the president to consider tariff relief on medical devices, to provide a temporary deferral for companies on duty collections, extending expanding tariff relief on Section 301 tariffs and to not take any new measures that “would create uncertainty or undue difficulty for American workers, families, farmers, ranchers, and businesses, and asking our global trading partners to do the same.”

US Grocery Store Price Increases Remain Subdued As COVID-19 Uncertainty Arrives

Difficult economic times ahead for the U.S. are poised to unfold with the COVID-19 situation, but consumers are still not faced with sticker shock at the grocery store, according to the latest update from USDA.

USDA looks for overall U.S. food prices are forecast to increase in 2020 by 1.5% to 2.5% compared with 2019, nearly in line with the increase of 1.9% registered for 2019.

Grocery store prices are forecast to increase from 0.5% to 1.5%, in line with the increase of 0.9% in 2019. Food at home (grocery store) prices have a 20-year average increase of 2%. The increase of 0.9% in 2019 was the biggest rise at the grocery store since prices rose 1.2% in 2015.

Food away from home (restaurant) prices for 2020 are now seen rising from 1.5% to 2.5%, down from the month-ago outlook for prices for eating out to rise by 2% to 3%. The increase now forecast by USDA would be considerably under the 20-year average of 2.8%.

Washington Insider: The Food Supply is Safe

Amid widespread concerns about threats from the coronavirus, Food Safety News (FSN) is carrying a report by Frank Yiannas, deputy FDA commissioner for food policy and responses. Yiannas notes that a critical and specific part of FDA’s mission is safeguarding the human and animal food supply including “helping to ensure that our food is not contaminated at any point during its journey along the supply chain.”

He notes that the COVID-19 threat is a “new frontier” but wants to assure consumers that it does not threaten the U.S. food supply.

Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that make people ill through contaminated food, COVID-19 is spread mainly from person to person and causes respiratory, not gastrointestinal illnesses, he says. He emphasizes that “foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.”

As a result, he says, the agency does not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or withdrawn from the market “for reasons related to the outbreak.”

This is true, he says, even if a person who works in a human or animal food facility is confirmed to be positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Food production and manufacturing are dispersed throughout the U.S., Yiannas says and notes that he is not aware of any widespread disruptions of the supply chains which “remain strong.” The FDA is working closely with food manufacturers and grocery stores to insure that they continue to insure normal flows of products, he says.

He also says that the shortages that have been reported are “localized” and tend to reflect sharp increases in demand rather than a lack of production capacity — and that they have been “generally overcome quickly.”

Yiannas notes that FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn announced last week that the agency has postponed most foreign inspections through April — mainly because of restrictions on travel and concerns about the safety of FDA’s investigators. In the meantime, FDA is using its other tools and authorities to help ensure the safety of imported foods, including inspections at the ports of entry and the use of PREDICT, its risk-based import screening tool.

FDA also has issued guidance on its intentions to temporarily delay audits of requirements for supplier verification under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. These audits are designed to confirm compliance with safety standards but travel restrictions will likely prevent receiving facilities and importers from obtaining them for the immediate future.

For verification that would include a domestic or foreign onsite audit, facilities are expected to temporarily select an alternative way to verify compliance with food safety standards, such as sampling and testing, or food safety records reviews.

Yiannas further notes that FDA is helping protect workers in food facilities against infections and problems they may have getting to and from work with curfews and quarantines in certain places. He says that there are significant requirements for human food facilities to maintain clean and sanitized facilities and food contact surfaces and that workers are required to practice frequent hand washing and glove changes before and after preparing food.

Yiannas notes that FDA is working closely with the food industry and existing state, local, and international regulatory partners are required to monitor and mitigate any impact on food safety and food access for the American public. This includes working with local, state and federal officials, and industry, to help ensure that food workers can get to and from their jobs in communities where curfews and shelter-in-place directives are enforced.

Yiannas focuses heavily on consumer safety and confidence in food supplies and assures FSN that the agency will continue efforts to make sure that consumers have access to the foods they need for themselves, their families and their livestock.

In the flurry of media talk about all things related to the virus outbreak, there have been occasional but urgent questions about food safety among those “sheltering in place.” The FSN comments by Yiannas seem timely and likely to be useful to answer a number of these, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN’s Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

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