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Operating Facilities in the Era of COVID-19: How Has the Industry Changed?

21 September 20208 min reading

Victoria Broehm Director of Communications  American Feed Industry Association (AFIA)

In the early days of the crisis, U.S. decision-makers wrestled with this concept of “interconnectivity” in agriculture. Many within the industry worried that animal food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, shippers and retailers would be ordered to close in compliance with state shelter-in-place rules, since state leaders’ understanding of the industry varied.

No one could have imagined earlier this year the extent to which the coronavirus would turn life as we know it on its head. For some, the rapid changes have been too much to bear, but for others, including those within the U.S. animal food industry, adapting to address the public health threat head-on was the only option.

“Essential industry does not mean working the same way we have always worked. We must adjust and protect the people who feed the world,” said David Lee, Alltech’s director of quality for the North American Feed Division and a member of Alltech’s global COVID-19 management team. “COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of the entire food chain, from the producer to the consumer. It has brought to life the interconnectivity of the supply chain.”

The First Wave In the early days of the crisis, U.S. decision-makers wrestled with this concept of “interconnectivity” in agriculture. Many within the industry worried that animal food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, shippers and retailers would be ordered to close in compliance with state shelter-in-place rules, since state leaders’ understanding of the industry varied. On March 18, the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), based in Arlington, Virginia, USA, joined 23 state and regional feed and grain associations in urging governors and other state officials to classify these businesses as “essential.”

Masks are worn by plant employees of the Alltech feed division to protect themselves, colleagues and customers.

“While we understand and appreciate the efforts to slow this pandemic, we also must recognize that animals must continue to have access to food and therefore, our industry must be able to manufacture, transport and sell ingredients, feed and pet food,” the groups stated.

It was not until a week later that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency designated the industry as “critical infrastructure,” providing a model for states to follow in their shutdown orders. Many U.S. companies provided their employees with letters to verify their “essential” status when questioned at state and border checkpoints, allowing them to proceed to work or make deliveries. Keeping facilities open was only one part of the equation. Amid a growing public health crisis, which the medical community still knew relatively little about, companies were forced to interpret federal and state guidance and make the best decisions they could – in real-time – to protect employee health. This challenge was made abundantly clear to Westway Feed Products, with a manufacturing facility in Washington State, where the first U.S. COVID-19 hotspot emerged.

“Westway implemented a companywide directive for immediate changes to accommodate the pandemic,” said Brian Holly, plant manager for Westway’s facility in Seattle, Washington. The company communicated with its employees about how to protect themselves from potentially infected individuals (e.g., truck drivers, contractors) and fully questioned any visitors about their current health, recent travels and contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19. Some companies, such as Alltech, completely restricted unnecessary outside visitors and required any essential visitors to adhere to strict health and safety protocols.

While some jobs within the industry moved remotely, Holly explained that his facility does not have any positions that could be performed offsite. This meant the company not only needed to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines, but it had to work closely with its employees to reduce health risks.

“Personal, professional and social interaction were the biggest risks,” he said. For example, he said one operator relied on public transportation and there was a concern that this individual could be exposed to an infected person and unknowingly bring COVID-19 to the site. To mitigate the risks, Westway instituted “physical barriers, no contact zones and innovative solutions for paperwork handling.”

Westway Feed Products’ Seattle, Washington, USA, facility provides a check-in table for drivers to limit visitors inside the office while still following company guidelines.

Some companies also modified work schedules and work zones to limit exposure to other staff, increased disinfection of high-touch surfaces, installed barriers where social distancing proved challenging and cross-trained staff in the event someone is exposed to, or sickened with, COVID-19, and must quarantine for two weeks. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration provided guidance on other ways employers could boost workplace safety.

With personal protective equipment (PPE) in high demand, the AFIA worked with federal agencies to prioritize PPE for the food and agriculture sector and provided facility managers with suggested alternatives to N95 respirators. Industry officials also sought out disinfectants and hand sanitizers, which some members even pivoted their operations to manufacture.

Besides keeping employees safe, companies worked with their suppliers to ensure the supply chain remained intact. The industry saw some short-lived disruptions to ground and shipping transportation and also found some ingredients in short supply due to the overnight change in retail (e.g., reduced dried distillers grains from idled ethanol plants).

“Early in the crisis, our primary supply chain concern was the potential impact to trucking transportation,” said Lee. “Our response, and that of our customers, was to increase inventory levels to ensure consistent product availability.”

Employees across the network of Hubbard Feeds, an Alltech company, follow COVID-19 protocols, including physical distancing and wearing masks.

In cases where this was not possible, some companies worked with their procurement teams to quickly source alternatives and with their nutritionists to change feed formulations. When some U.S. meatpacking facilities shuttered due to a rise in COVID-19 cases, the AFIA coordinated with others within the agricultural community on an effort to salvage some of the animal-based products as safe and nutritious ingredients for use in feed and pet food, in accordance with stringent federal animal food safety regulations.

Throughout the crisis, the bar was never lowered on feed or pet food nutrition, safety or quality. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration changed the schedule for inspections, some inspections and audits took place virtually.

Unfortunately, bringing in new sales is an area that was put on the backburner throughout the crisis. “Our sales staff were off the road for six weeks,” said Lon Stephens, general manager of Co-operative Feed Dealers, Inc.’s Conklin, New York, USA, facility. “They are heading back onto the road now, but are calling ahead to be sure the location is receiving visitors.”

At Westway, the sales team worked with the delivery drivers to communicate customers’ inventory levels, since many were restricted with a no travel directive, Holly said. On the flip side, the use of drop-points for physical paperwork or the electronic exchange for shipping documents, and contactless options for shippers, is something Alltech embraced during this time.

Preparing for the Second Wave The need for consistent and steady communication and collaboration – among employees, customers, suppliers and the greater agricultural industry – has remained steady throughout the crisis. COVID-19 has presented a no holds barred situation, in which sharing lessons learned, no matter how difficult it may be for competitors, has the power to save lives and the future trajectory of the virus.

Operating facilities in the era of COVID-19, Alltech’s employee models new safety practices.

Several AFIA member companies provided sample policies, notifications and forms for the association to adapt and provide membership for their use in preparing their facilities for COVID-19, including a coronavirus policy, protocols for exposure, tips on how to socially distance within facilities and signage for truckers and visitors. Clarion Safety Systems, AFIA’s long-time partner on the feed equipment safety signs, also developed signs AFIA members could display at or near equipment in their facilities to remind employees of new protocols and assist non-native English speakers.

Looking forward, the AFIA Board of Directors prioritized the association’s legislative and regulatory team to work on passing federal legislation that supports the overall health of the U.S. agriculture industry. The industry will undoubtedly adjust to a reduction in market demand for protein and dairy products within the food service and retail industries, a topic for consideration in an upcoming Institute for Feed Education and Research study. Without a stable agricultural economy, it will reduce the long-term economic growth in the sector.

Stephens, who also serves on AFIA’s Board, said that the “viability of the dairy economy” was one of his immediate concerns when the crisis hit. “The low prices of the last few years, coupled with COVID-19 induced processing problems, put additional financial stress on dairies,” he said. “Without dairy processing facilities, farmers don’t have a market for their products.”

Moving into the fall, many are concerned about a potential spike in cases as states completely reopen their economies. Many companies are using this time to invest in equipment and PPE to protect the health of their staff, revamping how they operate to minimize exposure, cross-training staff and communicating the need for flexibility during this time.

“Although the outbreak has created unprecedented uncertainty, our colleagues, customers and communities can have complete confidence in our commitment to their well-being,” said Lee, a sentiment in which all within the industry would agree.

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