USDA’s keep-it-open power extended to fruits and vegetables

The two federal overseers of food production, the USDA and the FDA, have agreed that the USDA can use its authority under the Defense Production Act to tell foodmakers, including fruit and vegetable processors, to operate during a coronavirus outbreak at their facilities. The directions could override decisions by state or local health officials, says the memorandum of understanding between the two agencies.

“Food resource facility closures or harvesting disruption could threaten the continued functioning of the national food supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” said the memorandum, released on Tuesday. “In many instances, these operations could continue to operate” under guidelines issued by the CDC and the Labor Department, “providing for the safe operation of such food resource facilities or farms.”

“No empathy is evidenced for the people who work on farms and in packing houses,” said Bruce Goldstein of the advocacy group Farmworker Justice. “The administration is claiming the right to prohibit states and local governments from requiring workplace safety precautions that might reduce the food supply while saving the lives of people needed in the food system.”

When President Trump signed an executive order to keep meat plants operating, he gave Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue authority under the DPA to carry out the order. The memorandum says the FDA and the USDA will confer “about circumstances in which USDA could exercise its authority under the DPA with regard to certain domestic food resource facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold foods, as well as to those that grow or harvest food.”

In a joint statement, the FDA and the USDA said the memorandum “is an important preparedness effort as we are approaching peak harvesting seasons, when many fruits and vegetables grown across the U.S. are sent to be frozen or canned.” The regulators said they were committed to worker safety as well as assuring the food supply.

To read the USDA-FDA memorandum, click here.