The measures taken to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus differ per country, but most countries have felt the effects of these measures. In the United States, the United Fresh Produce Association has been working tirelessly to help alleviate the negative effects of these measures.
Food supply chain workers classified as part of the “essential critical infrastructure”
United Fresh President Tom Stenzel shared the association has now achieved one of their most immediate priorities: workers throughout the food supply chain have been classified as essential to the country’s critical infrastructure. The federal government issued an updated coronavirus guidance in which it was stated that “If you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”
Many cities and countries have issues ‘shelter-in-place’ rules, which means that citizens may only leave their house for essential travel, such as to the pharmacy to pick up medicine or to the grocery store to purchase food. This is something that is regulated per individual city, but now that workers throughout the food supply chain are recognized as being part of the country’s essential critical infrastructure, it should provide relief to those who have been affected by the multiple state and local shelter-in-place rules.
Guidelines for when a worker tests positive
United Fresh has also been cooperating with federal organizations such as the CDC, the FDA, and the DHS in order to push for strong government guidance for food supply chain organizations on how to respond if a worker tests positive for the virus. This is to ensure that a single positive case won’t lead to the shutting down of an entire facility – which is something that happened at the Port of Houston.
Stenzel explains: “We learned on Thursday morning that the Port of Houston was shut down when a longshoreman tested positive and would not reopen until Monday. We worked with our importers into Houston, the cold chain sector, other food sectors, Texas retailers, and USDA, and I’m pleased to share that the Port is reopening tonight. This port is a major receiver for citrus, bananas, apples and many other fruits.”
The FDA has stated that there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted by food or packaging materials, and that if a worker is tested positive there will be no need to issue a food recall. The association’s efforts are directed at going even further and ensuring that facilities can continue to operate if a worker is found to be positive for the virus.
Partnership to facilities H2A visa processing
US consulates in more than a dozen countries throughout the world have stopped processing visas, which has sparked many worries about a possible labor shortage in the US produce industry since the sector relies on many foreign workers who enter the country on H2A visas. The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, of which United Fresh is a member, is working to remedy this situation so that the industry can continue to have access to their much-needed workforce. In light of this, the USDA and the Department of Labor announced a partnership to work together to facilitate movement of current H2A guest workers from their current contracts as they expire into new contracts within the country.
“United Fresh has worked across the supply chain to ensure the integrity of the essential services we’re providing go uninterrupted in these unprecedented times,” said Stenzel. “With this announcement, we’re making incremental progress, but must continue to work hard to ensure that Americans have access to fresh produce, meeting our most critical mission.”
Aid to produce foodservice companies
Due to the shutting down of restaurants, schools, and the hospitality industry, foodservice companies have experienced devastating effects. In light of this, United Fresh teamed up with the Food Marketing Institute and the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA) to connect foodservice distributors, who now have extra capacity, with the retailers across the country who have need of more supplies.
United Fresh also worked together with the IFDA to urge the federal government to elevate the immediate financial relief of the foodservice distribution sector in recognition of the ongoing devastation. “We’ve gathered financial impact from our produce distributors across the country and continue to use that data to drive home the impact with Congressional leaders working on financial support,” Stenzel shares.
“This crisis won’t be over tomorrow, and we need to build new bridges across our supply chains,” he concludes.