The federal government this week signaled its willingness to take over any part of the food industry that isn’t functioning properly to keep production flowing.

For the moment, the extended authority is being provided to “FDA-regulated food facilities, including fruit and vegetable processing.”

USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears and FDA Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas said it was “the next step in carrying out Executive Order 13917.”

That’s the Executive Order President Trump signed in April to grant the USDA authority under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to keep meat and poultry plants open. Coronavirus illnesses and deaths were forcing temporary shut-downs and production cuts, raising the prospect of meat shortages.

A backlog of slaughter demand remains, but production is trending back up under USDA’s Defense Act authority. Since the national emergency was declared March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Act has also been used to produce masks, protective equipment, and medical ventilators.

Jennifer McEntire, vice president for food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association says USDA-FDA collaboration is “a good thing,” but also said the industry hopes the DPA authority never has to be deployed.

In a joint statement, Brashears and Yiannas said the action is “another in a series of proactive steps the USDA and FDA have taken to maximize food availability following unprecedented disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic has caused to food supply chains that have been established and refined for decades.”

They said the USDA-FDA agreement is “important preparedness” for the approaching peak harvest seasons. Some fruits and vegetables are grown to be frozen or canned. The agreement keeps the DPA available throughout those processes no matter whether USDA or the FDA has regulatory authority.

The USDA/FDA statement makes it clear that the agreement will be used if COVID-19 illnesses among packing house employees or harvest crews threaten a reduction in production capacity. The DPA can be used as trump card if state or local closures threaten to dispute harvest or “the continued functioning of the national food supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”

The joint statement said USDA and FDA will work with state and local regulators “in a collaborative manner,” but promised to take action under the DPA “as needed, to ensure the continuity of our food supply.”

Under the Executive Order signed on April 28, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was granted authority to use the DPA if needed to fulfill contracts at food processing facilities.

“The MOU (memorandum of understanding) makes clear that FDA will work with stakeholders to monitor the food supply for food resources not under the USDA’s exclusive jurisdiction in order to prevent interruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities.,” according to the joint statement.

Throughout the pandemic, USDA and FDA say they’ve worked with industry and federal partners to protect frontline employees with such needs as personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, disinfectants, and sanitation supplies.    The federal agencies are also monitoring the food supply for any signs of shortages.

Brashears and Yiannas are the top food safety officials in the federal government. In the statement, they said again that foodborne exposure is not known to be a route of transmission for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, also known as coronavirus.  They said their agencies along with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are ready to respond to any foodborne outbreaks that may occur during the pandemic.

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