In October, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced an additional $500 million in contracts as part of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, extending the program for a fourth round. Though it serves an admirable goal — paying contractors to distribute food that farmers might otherwise have to throw away during a period of acute economic suffering — the program has been mired in controversy since its first announcement in April. Documents obtained by American Oversight and Public Citizen offer further insight into the program’s origins, suggesting that meat industry groups may have pitched the program to USDA to avoid incurring costs associated with repackaging and relabeling products intended for food service.
On March 17, 2020, senior executives at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) emailed USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator Paul Kiecker and USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears about the collapse of demand in the food-service sector. In a subsequent message dated March 19, NAMI’s director of scientific and regulatory affairs shared a document outlining three ways meat processors could meet the increased demand in retail spaces like supermarkets by diverting supplies that would otherwise be sold in the hotel, restaurant, and institutional (HRI) sector.
All three proposals involved obtaining temporary approval to distribute products intended for HRI without having to repackage or relabel the contents, instead relying on retailers to affix nutritional and other labels. Kiecker, whose agency is responsible for inspecting food and regulating labels and packaging, appeared skeptical of the proposition, responding, “I do not see this being supportable by placing the responsibility on the retailer to provide labels or notifications to customers.”
A parallel communication from a poultry trade association also alluded to the economic challenges of repackaging food for retail, but proposed sending products to food banks rather than supermarkets. On April 6, 2020, the president of the National Chicken Council emailed senior USDA officials, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff, Joby Young, and Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Bruce Summers, whose agency administers Farmers to Families, with a proposal for a special purchase program. Rather than diverting products to retail, as NAMI suggested, the council requested that USDA purchase $150 million worth of chicken products for “food banks and similar hunger relief operations to distribute.”
Within weeks of this communication, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service had assembled the outlines of what would become the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. On April 23, USDA Senior Adviser Dudley Hoskins circulated a document detailing the proposed timeline for a $3 billion food purchase and distribution program. Notably, a representative of the National Chicken Council, whose name is redacted, is included on the email’s recipients list, among multiple USDA officials.
This was one of several instances this year in which meatpacking companies and their lobbyists have cited the Covid-19 pandemic as justification to seek special treatment from the federal government, often prioritizing profits over worker safety. The same set of records shows that in April, NAMI submitted a draft executive order to USDA that would mandate that “critical infrastructure food companies continue their operations to the fullest extent possible” — a version of which President Trump issued just a week later — even as those companies were exporting a record amount of pork to China.
The documents also showed that the National Chicken Council requested that USDA issue waivers to allow an increase in the speed of dangerous chicken-eviscerator lines to account for pandemic-related workforce shortages. Several plants received waivers, despite concerns that faster line speeds would lead to more accidents and worsen the spread of Covid-19. Tens of thousands of meatpacking workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and just last month, news surfaced that managers at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa had placed bets on how many employees would contract Covid-19.
While millions of boxes of food have been distributed since May as part of Farmers to Families, at the cost of more than $3.6 billion, for months, lawmakers have struggled to obtain basic information about the program, raising doubts about its efficacy compared with existing federal aid programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which the Trump administration has sought to restrict. Moreover, the food box program has drawn criticism over concerns about contractors’ qualifications, and for requiring contractors to include signed letters from President Trump in the boxes. Recently, Perdue was fined for encouraging people to vote for Trump while he was promoting the program.
American Oversight and the Union of Concerned Scientists await responses to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests seeking further information about Farmers to Families and the influence of special interests on the program.
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