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Food and beverage groups ask White House for priority on COVID-19 vaccines

Dive Brief:

  • Fifteen trade groups representing different parts of the food, beverage and CPG industry are asking President Donald Trump to have priority for a vaccine once it is developed, and to have a federally orchestrated vaccine distribution program. United Fresh said in an email the groups also had a discussion about these issues with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team. 
  • The groups, which include the American Frozen Food Institute, the Consumer Brands Association and the North American Meat Institute, made the requests in a Nov. 11 letter to Trump. “Prioritizing vaccinations for food, agriculture, retail, and CPG workers will be a key intervention to help keep workers healthy and to ensure that agricultural and food supply chains remain operating,” the groups wrote. 
  • This week, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its early results showed the company’s vaccine is more than 90% effective. Some people are predicting a vaccine could potentially be available for priority groups in early 2021.

Dive Insight:

As cases of the coronavirus surge in the U.S., companies are racing to secure more permanent protection for their workers. Less than a week after the vaccine news from Pfizer, the food and beverage industry is not wasting any time asking to be on the priority list for whenever one is made available. 

This isn’t the first time the industry has reached out to the administration. For months, the industry has worked on lobbying government officials to get a vaccine early. In June, the same fifteen groups sent a similar letter asking that food and agriculture workers be given the next highest priority for getting the vaccine behind healthcare workers, first responders and high-risk individuals.

Similar requests have been sent by these groups individually as well. In September, the Consumer Brands Association sent a letter to the CDC asking for the CPG industry’s roughly 1.2 million workers to be prioritized for vaccine allocation. 

“Worker absenteeism remains a concern in manufacturing facilities, posing a threat to the maintenance of consistent inventories of life-sustaining products,” Betsey Booren, senior vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at CBA, wrote in the letter. “Without early vaccinations, the CPG sector risks the absence of skilled workers due to illness and the subsequent negative impacts on the supply chain.”

The Food and Environment Reporting Network reported the industry’s lobbying has worked and many states’ draft plans have prioritized food processing and agriculture workers for a vaccine once it is developed. That is a positive step for the industry, but these trade groups also are trying to ensure the industry will get national priority and that there is a national distribution program in place. 

The administration’s COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook for Jurisdiction Operations considers prioritizing four groups for COVID-19 vaccinations if the initial supply is limited: Healthcare personnel, non-healthcare essential workers, adults with high-risk medical conditions and people 65 and older. In the Nov. 11 letter, the groups said they strongly support the playbook’s prioritization of “essential workers in critical infrastructure industries, including those responsible for ensuring the continuity of our nation’s food supply.”

During the last eight months, more than 72,000 food system workers have tested positive for coronavirus and at least 329 have died, according to the FERN. Meat processing plant employees and farm workers have been hit especially hard. Early on in the pandemic when COVID-19 started to rapidly spread in meat plants, many temporarily closed to implement additional safety precautions. Some executives expressed concern about potential shortages. Trump signed an executive order in April that used the Defense Production Act to label meat processing as “critical infrastructure” in order to keep plants open and supply flowing. 

The group wrote in their newest letter to Trump that so far “challenges have taxed the food supply chain over the past eight months,” but the “supply chains have not broken.”

Although many food processing plants have spent millions to implement precautions such as temperature checks, plastic barriers, mandatory PPE and testing, the coronavirus continues to spread. Amid growing optimism that a vaccine will soon be available, industry groups are moving aggressively to ensure their workers will be some of the first to get it. 

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