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COVID-19 and the cattle industry

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Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, outlined COVID-19’s impact on the U.S. cattle industry when he spoke to Wyoming ranchers during the convention held Aug. 24-26 in Rock Springs.

When 2020 began, the outlook was a rosy one for the beef industry, Woodall told cattlemen during his presentation on Aug. 26, at the Wyoming Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show at the Sweetwater Events Complex.

The beef industry was in a good place, including the aspect of rules and regulations and federal engagement, Woodall said. He referred to President Donald Trump as one of the most cattle-friendly presidents the beef industry has ever seen. 

The Trump administration rolled back between two and eight regulations for every one enacted, lessening the burden on beef producers and the industry as a whole, according to Woodall.

No one, however, was banking on COVID-19.

The journey hasn’t been an easy one, but COVID-19 “provided an opportunity to show what we’re made of as an industry and an association,” Woodall said. 

When the pandemic hit, every other agricultural organization in Washington, D.C., shut down its office. The NCBA, however, stayed open. Throughout the crisis, Woodall said its team worked with Congress and the administration.

“We at the NCBA made the case that COVID-19 was going to be all about the supply chain,” Woodall said. “No one else was talking about that. We said, we need to make sure the supply chain continues to function and beef continues to flow.”

The Trump administration made sure the NCBA’s priorities were being heard, Woodall said. NCBA officials went to those at the Department of Homeland Security and asked them to make sure both beef producers and the NCBA agency were designated as critical infrastructure in the U.S. That effort was successful.

When COVID-19 first hit, things looked pretty good for the beef industry, Woodall said. Photographs from across the country showed grocery stores where the beef cases were cleaned out. In those photos of empty meat cases, Woodall said there were full cases of Beyond Beef right next to them.

“It was a great opportunity to see what the consumer truly thinks,” he said.

Beef was selling so well at the time, it then became a question of how to get those shelves restocked.

“We needed trucks moving fast,” Woodall said.

The NCBA was able to work with President Trump and the Department of Transportation to get an exemption for hours of service to ensure trucks could run as long as needed to restock shelves.

There was another interesting dilemma at the same time. Store shelves were empty, but in restaurants that had to close down, there were coolers and freezers full of beef that wasn’t being used.

It’s no simple task to take beef from a restaurant and sell it at a grocery store, Woodall said. Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, industry officials were able to arrange for the product to be repackaged and transferred into retail cases.

Things were looking up. Then, COVID-19 started to break out at the packing plants. Some shut down for a couple of days while others were closed for a couple of weeks.

“That’s when the pinch really started,” Woodall said.

It was another problem with the supply chain. The demand was still there, but meat packing plants couldn’t process the cattle. Once again, the critical infrastructure designation was used to convince the president an executive order was necessary to make sure the packing plants stayed open, and that helped things to begin to turn around, according to Woodall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service provided guidance that showed there are ways to operate packing plants amidst a pandemic to protect the workers while keeping plants open, according to Woodall. He said steps, including barriers and social distancing, have been taken to protect workers and prevent a resurgence in the plants.

Woodall said one thing that has helped during the pandemic is the fact the Environmental Protection Agency was persuaded to suspend routine inspections during the crisis, giving those in the industry one less thing to worry about.

In addition, COVID-19 relief was provided in the form of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). It provides financial assistance to producers of agricultural commodities who have suffered price declines and added marketing costs due to the pandemic. 

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue gave the credit to NCBA for getting that done, according to Woodall.

Things looked pretty bleak for almost two months, but Woodall said the packing plants were able to get back up and running.

“Now we’re running at anywhere from 95 to 98 percent of where we were prior to COVID-19,” Woodall told convention goers.

Packer problems

The NCBA’s relationship with meat packing companies has not always been smooth through the COVID-19 crisis, Woodall said.

There were questions as to why plants, especially the big four packers, were not being more forthcoming about what they were doing to mitigate COVID-19 risk. 

The NCBA sent President Trump a letter asking for an investigation into what was going on in the cattle market and with the packers. Six hours later, there was an investigation. Woodall said this shows the relationship NCBA has built with the president himself and all the members of his administration, because typically it takes days and days.

The investigation is ongoing. The Department of Justice is involved and talking to packers, feeders, trade associations, retailers and all players within the beef supply chain, Woodall said.

The NCBA wants the investigation to be done thoroughly but also quickly.

“We can’t wait for a year for the results to come back on this,” Woodall said.

He said conclusions are needed in order to begin looking at whatever legislative changes need to come forward to address the issues found. There is also the possibility of prosecution.

In the meantime, Woodall said the NCBA continues to engage with packers. He said another issues is price discovery. Currently, the NCBA is working to determine whether or not folks are getting a fair price for their cattle, he said.

This article was written by the Rocket Miner’s Digital Media Manager and Photographer Lisa Romero and was originally published in the Rocket Miner on Sept. 1.

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