Ag briefs: COVID-19 relief package includes grant funding to improve meatpacking plants

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal

News from the world of agriculture on the last week of 2020:

RAMP-UP included in latest COVID-19 relief package

The RAMP-UP Act (Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants) is designed to support facility upgrades and planning grants to existing meat and poultry processors to help them move to federal inspection and sell their products across state lines. The legislation also requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with states and report on ways to improve the existing Cooperative Interstate Shipment program.

Included in the COVID-19 relief package is an amended version of RAMP-UP that provides $60 million in grants to small meat and poultry processors. Grants can be used for modernizing or expanding facilities, modernizing equipment or for implementing other processes to ensure food safety. The relief package also includes direct support for cattle producers, establishment of a dealer trust, funding for agriculture quarantine inspection services and an extension of Livestock Mandatory Reporting.

Chicken growers included in latest relief round

The COVID-19 stimulus bill contains language that would authorize USDA to provide up to $1 billion in assistance to contract chicken growers for revenue losses sustained as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This fund is earmarked specifically for contract growers of livestock and poultry to cover up to 80 percent of revenue losses. Contract chicken farmers have been excluded in the previous three federal COVID-19 stimulus packages.

Food and ag workers prioritized for COVID vaccine

For fruit and vegetable growers, the newly signed $900 billion COVID-19 relief package includes important policy changes regarding supplier expenses that are eligible to be used for Paycheck Protection Program loan funding, according to United Fresh. In addition, the CDC has recommended that essential frontline food and ag workers receive priority access for vaccinations in category “1B.” This means food and ag workers from farm to grocery store fall right behind “1A” status, which is reserved for frontline health care workers and long-term care facility residents and employees.

Sorghum yield winners announced

A new U.S. dryland sorghum yield record was set in the National Sorghum Yield Contest, at 245.86 bushels per acre. Ella Johnston, of Fulton County, Pennsylvania, grew the Pioneer seed variety 84G62 “bin-buster.” The 35th National Sorghum Yield Contest had seven national winners, selected from three categories for both the eastern and western regions of the U.S, and one winner for the food grade division. Two winners were from Kansas. Kimberly Gamble, of Greensburg, topped the Irrigated West category with a yield of 223.51 bushels per acre. Jerry and Sue Long, who farm in Washington County, won the Dryland-No Till West category with a yield of 186.84 bushels per acre.

No Till On the Plains goes virtual

Due to COVID-19 restrictions in Wichita, Kansas, No-till on the Plains has been forced to cancel the in-person portion of the 2021 winter conference. Instead, the group will host a one-day virtual conference on Jan. 26. “Thank you for helping us navigate this unprecedented but very temporary interruption to our 25-year tradition and for your continued commitment to healthier soil,” the group said in a statement.

Cattlemen’s Congress kicks off in January

Purebred beef cattle start arriving in Oklahoma City on Jan. 2 for the first ever Cattlemen’s Congress. The 15-day event was quickly organized after the National Western Stock Show for 2021 was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Over a dozen breeds will hold national shows and sales in or around the Oklahoma City fairgrounds. The show will culminate with the naming of an overall supreme champion open class breeding heifer and breeding bull, modeled on a unique feature of the Canadian Western Agribition in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Need for epidemic preparedness emphasized

The United Nations commemorated the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness on Sunday by underscoring the need to learn lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, and urging greater investments in preparedness to confront future health emergencies. The UN highlighted the need for strong health systems, support for communities on the frontlines, and technical cooperation between countries. In a separate message, the UN’s World Health Organization emphasized the importance of a “One Health Approach,” which integrates human health, animal health and plant health, as well as environmental factors. Around 75 percent of new and emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic, which means they can spread between animals and people.

Gene altered pig gains FDA approval

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a first-of-its-kind intentional genomic alteration in a line of domestic pigs, referred to as GalSafe pigs, which can be used for food or human therapeutics. This is the first genomic alteration in an animal that the FDA has approved for both human food consumption and as a source for potential therapeutic uses.

The alteration is intended to eliminate alpha-gal sugar on the surface of the pigs' cells. People with alpha-gal syndrome have mild to severe allergic reactions to alpha-gal sugar found in mammalian meat. GalSafe pigs potentially provide a source of porcine-based materials to produce human medical products that are free of detectable alpha-gal sugar.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue also recently announced a significant step in modernizing regulations of agricultural animals modified or produced by genetic engineering, which would transition portions of FDA's animal biotechnology regulatory oversight to USDA. He noted the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service already has a review process in place for gene editing in plants, which could serve as a model for livestock. Last year, President Donald Trump directed federal agencies to modernize the regulatory framework for agricultural biotechnology products.

Could pigs be susceptible to COVID?

Canadian and U.S. researchers now say pigs might be susceptible to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2.) Previous studies indicated that swine were not susceptible, but those studies did not measure antibody production.

The University of Manitoba, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Iowa State University collaborated on new research, which showed that five out of 16 experimentally inoculated animals displayed some level of exposure or elicited an immune response to the virus. Only one pig retained live virus, two other animals had detectible RNA measured in nasal wash and another two developed antibodies. Another pig displayed mild, nonspecific clinical signs, including coughing.

Over nine days between cessation of clinical signs and postmortem evaluation, researchers found the pig also maintained the virus in a lymph node. The virus was undetected in other samples from the same animal. Among the five animals with potential infection, only low levels of viral RNA were detected, and no live viral shedding was identified.