Pa. House committee takes up agricultural concerns related to COVID-19

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By Julia Shanahan

During the first remote meeting since COVID-19 of the state House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding said the supply side of food processing is stable in the state, but said he is concerned about farm income projections.

The meeting was held to address agricultural issues related to COVID-19. Committee Chairman Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean, said Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home orders were done in a “haphazard nature” that muddied communication in the agriculture sector.

Chris Herr, the executive vice president of PennAg Industries said that about 400 people in the food processing industry did not show up to work the day after Wolf’s March 19 order. It has since been clarified that employees at food processing plants and other agriculture and manufacturing jobs are considered to be essential workers.

Meat and food processing plants

Herr said that most food processing plants are up and running at nearly full capacity. And Redding added that they’re still working with many processors on existing capacity issues.

In April, Pennsylvania farmers had to euthanize more than 200,000 chickens due to the lack of demand and backlog on the state and national levels. 

Herr said that almost $300,000 is available through the Center for Poultry and Livestock Excellence, a result of Wolf’s 2019 Farm Bill, to reimburse poultry and other meat processors for costs related to personal protective equipment. He said those checks will be sent out within the next ten days.

Herr said no hogs were euthanized in Pennsylvania and that they reached out to Midwestern states where that was happening, offering to process their hogs.

Food security

As reported in April, local processor Harrisburg Dairies asked suppliers to dump milk for two consecutive milking cycles as business closures across the country threatened the dairy industry.

Redding said the state is keeping records on lost products and that they currently have recorded 400 loads of discarded milk. He said the state is now “in a good spot” on the supply side, even though the markets haven’t responded on the economic side.

Redding said that food security has been “tested to its limits,” and that 35 million pounds of food is currently moving through food banks.

Restaurant reopenings 

Some lawmakers on the committee expressed concern in restaurants being able to maintain profits while functioning at limited capacity in red and yellow zones, per the Governor’s orders. 

Redding said he is not currently aware of a plan that would change those regulations, but said conversations on the topic have been ongoing.

In a statement released after the meeting, the Wolf administration said that, starting June 5, restaurants in yellow counties are permitted to allow dine-in and outdoor seating, as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines. This includes prohibitions of self-serve or buffet-style dining, condiments on tables, reusable menus, and refilling food and beverage containers. 

Restaurants in green counties that choose to reopen dine-in and outdoor services must strictly adhere to maximum occupancy limits. Customers at bars must be seated six feet apart. 

Julia Shanahan is a summer intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association