USDA just announced five more outbreaks of Avian Flu

Revelations 6:8 “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”

Important Takeaways:

  • USDA Confirms Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Massachusetts, Wyoming, North Carolina, Ohio and North Dakota
  • APHIS is working closely with state animal health officials in both states on a joint incident response. State officials quarantined the affected premises, and birds on the properties will be depopulated to prevent the spread of the disease. Birds from the flocks will not enter the food system.

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Northern U.S. Plains drought shrivels spring wheat crop to smallest in 33 years, USDA says

By Julie Ingwersen and Karl Plume

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Farmers in the northern U.S. Plains are on track to harvest the smallest spring wheat crop in 33 years, reflecting the impact of severe drought in the key farming region, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said on Monday.

The shortfall in spring wheat, which typically represents a quarter of total U.S. wheat production, means tighter supplies of the variety used in bread and pizza dough, prized by millers for its quality and high protein content.

Benchmark futures prices on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange surged more than 5% after the USDA slashed its 2021 spring wheat harvest outlook to 345 million bushels, down 41% from a year earlier and the smallest since 1988. Chicago Board of Trade winter wheat contracts followed suit, gaining 3% to 4%.

Soaring U.S. wheat prices will further pinch import-dependent nations that have struggled with food inflation and climbing costs for shipping grain around the world.

A harsh drought in the Canadian Prairies is threatening to pare supplies of the high-protein grain even further. Both nations export the majority of their spring wheat.

“The spring wheat production is a lot weaker than expected and has been heading south. There’s just nothing good to say about this spring wheat crop,” said Jack Scoville, analyst with the Price Futures Group in Chicago.

“Wheat millers are going to pay, and so are we. The good news is that there’s only few cents worth of wheat in each loaf of bread or package of cereal. But even so, it’s going to creep up,” Scoville said.

Spring wheat production losses should be partially offset by a large U.S. winter wheat harvest, but U.S. supplies are still projected at the tightest in eight years, the USDA said.

Late on Monday, the USDA rated just 16% of the U.S. spring wheat crop in good-to-excellent condition, the lowest early-July level since 1988.

(Reporting by Julie Ingwersen and Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. defends minority farmer debt relief despite legal fight

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) is defending efforts to wipe clean government-backed loans to farmers facing decades of discrimination, despite a temporary restraining order on the debt relief plan issued by a U.S. District court last week.

A USDA spokesperson said the agency will be ready to process payments on an estimated $4 billion in debt relief for 17,000 Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian farmers once legal battles are resolved. It planned to start the payments in June.

“USDA will continue to forcefully defend its ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” a USDA spokesperson said on Tuesday.

The spokesperson said the government cannot appeal the restraining order, which pauses payments until the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin rules more broadly on a lawsuit over whether or not the debt relief program discriminates against non-minority farmers.

For decades, USDA employees and programs have discriminated against socially disadvantaged farmers by denying loans and delaying payments, resulting in $120 billion in lost farmland value since 1920, according to a 2018 Tufts University analysis. The Biden administration’s loan forgiveness program is aimed at addressing those systemic inequities.

The lawsuit, filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty on behalf of 12 white farmers, aims to halt the debt relief by claiming it excludes farmers on the basis of race. It is one of several lawsuits filed after the USDA detailed plans to implement the minority farmer debt-relief provision, which is part of the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed in March.

Judge William C. Griesbach, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, granted the temporary restraining order on June 10.

“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop,” Griesbach said in the decision.

Some Black farmers are not surprised the relief has stalled, having seen previous government anti-discrimination efforts underdeliver.

“Talk is cheap. I can’t buy grain with it. I want to know when you’re going to help some farmers,” said Lloyd Wright, a Virginia farmer who served as the director of the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Wright said Black farmers have been promised relief from federal discrimination in the past, only to be repeatedly disappointed. He suggests eligible farmers continue paying on loans, so they do not end up behind if the program is permanently blocked.

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Trump administration rolls back U.S. inspection rules for egg products

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Wednesday it will stop requiring U.S. plants that produce egg products to have full-time government inspectors, in the first update of inspection methods in 50 years.

Under a new rule that takes effect immediately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow companies like Cargill Inc and Sonstegard Foods to use different food-safety systems and procedures designed for their factories and equipment.

The change marks the Trump administration’s latest move to ease government regulations over the nation’s food system. Some inspectors and public-interest groups have warned food safety may suffer as a result.

The new rule affects 83 plants that USDA has been inspecting, according to the agency. USDA will also assume oversight from the Food and Drug Administration of additional facilities that produce egg substitutes.

Inspectors will visit plants once per shift, instead of being there whenever egg products are being processed.

The change, first proposed in 2018, makes inspections consistent with those for meat and poultry products, said Paul Kiecker, administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Inspectors will operate under a “patrol” system, in which they will cover multiple plants each day, he said.

“We feel very confident that, based on the once per shift that we have them there, we’ll still be able to verify that they’re producing safe product,” he said.

Environmental group Food & Water Watch said in 2018 the patrol system may make inspections less effective.

The new rule aims to make better use of inspectors and allow companies to develop new food-safety procedures, Kiecker said.

Companies must implement standard operating procedures for sanitation and food-safety management systems known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points.

“We are giving them more of the responsibility to ensure that they are producing safe products,” Kiecker said.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted egg product sales this spring, as closures of restaurants, schools and offices reduced demand.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Tom Brown)

Trump says he is speeding help to farmers hurt by coronavirus dislocation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he has directed his agriculture secretary to expedite help to farmers, especially small farmers, hurt by the economic disruption caused by the new coronavirus outbreak.

On Twitter, Trump also said he expects Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “to use all of the funds and authorities at his disposal to make sure that our food supply is stable, strong, and safe.”

Trump did not specify what he expected Perdue to do, but farmers are waiting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to announce how it will disburse $9.5 billion Congress set aside for the industry in the coronavirus relief bill signed by Trump last month.

Farmers are an important part of Republican Trump’s political base as he seeks re-election in November.

Also on Twitter, Perdue said the USDA “is using all financial resources we have been given to develop a program that will include direct payments to farmers & ranchers hurt by COVID-19 & other procurement methods to help solidify the supply chain from producers to consumers.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation said last week that farmers need immediate help and it urged the USDA to make special direct payments to dairy and cotton producers, livestock farmers and cattle ranchers, among others.

The group said certain sectors have been particularly hard-hit, including dairy farmers and specialty crop producers, such as vegetable and fruit farms.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Grant McCool)

U.S. farmers receive $8.52 billion in aid to date, USDA says

FILE PHOTO: A farmer drives tractor along a road in Pearl City, Illinois, U.S., July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has to date paid out $8.52 billion in direct payments to American farmers as part of the 2018 aid program, designed to offset losses from trade tariffs by China and other trading partners, a spokesman for the agency said.

The Trump administration has pledged up to $12 billion in aid to help offset losses for crops hit by Chinese tariffs imposed in response to Washington’s tariffs on Chinese goods.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. disaster aid won’t cover crops drowned by Midwest floods

The contents of a grain silo which burst from flood damage is shown in Crescent, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. Photo taken March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek

By Tom Polansek

MALVERN, Iowa (Reuters) – The Black Hawk military helicopter flew over Iowa, giving a senior U.S. agriculture official and U.S. senator an eyeful of the flood damage below, where yellow corn from ruptured metal silos spilled out into the muddy water.

And there’s nothing the U.S. government can do about the millions of bushels of damaged crops here under current laws or disaster-aid programs, U.S. Agriculture Under Secretary Bill Northey told a Reuters reporter who joined the flight.

U.S. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey speak before boarding a helicopter to view flood damage, in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., March 29, 2019. Photo taken March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek

U.S. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey speak before boarding a helicopter to view flood damage, in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., March 29, 2019. Photo taken March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek

The USDA has no mechanism to compensate farmers for damaged crops in storage, Northey said, a problem never before seen on this scale. That’s in part because U.S. farmers have never stored so much of their harvests, after years of oversupplied markets, low prices and the latest blow of lost sales from the U.S. trade war with China – previously their biggest buyer of soybean exports.

The USDA last year made $12 billion in aid available to farmers who suffered trade-war losses, without needing Congressional approval. The agency has separate programs that partially cover losses from cattle killed in natural disasters, compensate farmers who cannot plant crops due to weather, and help them remove debris left in fields after floods.

But it has no program to cover the catastrophic and largely uninsured stored-crop losses from the widespread flooding, triggered by the “bomb cyclone” that hit the region in mid-March. Congress would have to pass legislation to address the harvests lost in the storm, according to Northey and a USDA statement to Reuters.

Flood damage is shown in this aerial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. Photo taken March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek

Flood damage is shown in this aerial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. Photo taken March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek

“It’s not traditionally been covered,” he said. “But we’ve not usually had as many losses.”

Indigo Ag, an agriculture technology company, identified 832 on-farm storage bins within flooded Midwest areas. They hold an estimated 5 million to 10 million bushels of corn and soybeans – worth between $17.3 million to $34.6 million – that could have been damaged in the floods, the company told Reuters.

Across the United States, farmers held soybean stocks of 2.716 billion bushels as of March 1, the largest on record for the time period, the USDA said on Friday. Corn stocks were the third-largest on record.

Some Congress members have expressed interest in pursuing legislation to provide aid for damaged crops in storage, Northey said. But passing legislation could require a lengthy political process in the face of an urgent disaster, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley told farmers at a meeting in Malvern, Iowa.

“If we have to pass a bill to do it, I hate to tell you how long that takes,” said the senator from Iowa, who joined Northey on the helicopter tour.

With farm incomes declining for years before the flood, many farmers had planned to sell their grain in storage for money to live, pay their taxes or finance operations, including planting this spring.

The contents of grain silos which burst from flood damage are shown in Fremont County Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. Photo taken March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek

The contents of grain silos which burst from flood damage are shown in Fremont County Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. Photo taken March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek

THROWING AWAY CROPS

From the helicopter, piloted by National Guard members, officials surveyed miles of flooded fields in Iowa, littered with lawn chairs, fuel tanks, furniture, tires and other flood debris.

Farmers will have to destroy any grains that were contaminated by floodwater, which could also prevent some growers from planting oversaturated fields.

Near Crescent, Iowa, farmer Don Rief said the flood damaged more than 60,000 bushels of his grain, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He tried to move the crops before the flood, but dirt roads were too soft from the storm to support trucks.

“We were just hurrying like hell,” Rief said. “Hopefully USDA will come in and minimize some of the damage.”

The USDA does not have a program that covers flood-damaged grain because farmers have typically received more advance notice of rising waters, allowing them to move crops and limit losses, said Tom Vilsack, who ran the agency under former President Barack Obama.

In this case, floods inundated fields quickly after multiple levees failed when rain and melting snow filled the Missouri River and other waterways. The frozen ground was unable to soak up the water.

Near Percival, Iowa, railroad tracks leading up to a grain facility were flooded and broken. A Deere Co dealership, Wendy’s restaurant, Motel 6 and gas station nearby were also underwater, along with homes, cars and farm equipment.

Some farmers moved machinery such as tractors on to highways to keep it out of the path of the floods. The equipment was still parked there during the flyover on Friday.

DISASTER RELIEF ‘GAP’

About 416,000 acres of cropland across six counties in Iowa were flooded, said Amanda De Jong, state executive director for the USDA Iowa Farm Service Agency.

Of that, about 309,000 acres will be eligible for the federal program that helps farmers and ranchers remove debris left by natural disasters on farmlands, De Jong said last week. She estimated the program would need about $34 million to clean up the fields.

Iowa’s agriculture secretary Mike Naig said the U.S. government also should help compensate farmers for some of the grain that was damaged.

“This is clearly a gap that we think needs to be addressed,” said Naig, who accompanied Grassley and Northey in the chopper.

Time is short for a solution, said Carol Vinton, supervisor of Mills County, Iowa, one of the state’s two most heavily damaged counties.

Vinton said she was getting calls from farmers whose grain was damaged and are worried about making good on previously signed contracts to deliver those crops to elevators.

The USDA wants to do everything it can to help farmers hurt by the disaster, Northey said.

“They spent all last year raising that crop, putting it in the bin and they maybe already have it marketed,” he said. “And now they’re going to have to spend time just to get rid of it – just to clean the place up.”

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Malvern, Iowa. Additional reporting by Mark Weinraub in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

U.S. to train more beagles to sniff out deadly hog virus

FILE PHOTO: Pigs are seen on a pig farm in Rabacsecseny, Hungary, May 31, 2018. Picture taken May 31, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo - RC16668124D0

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. government will increase the number of dogs used to sniff out illegal pork products at airports and seaports in an effort to keep out a contagious hog disease that has spread across Asia and Europe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Wednesday.

The disease, African swine fever, can kill hogs in just two days. China, home to the world’s largest hog herd, has reported more than 100 cases of the disease in 27 provinces and regions since last August. Efforts to contain the fever have disrupted Chinese pork supplies.

The virus, which does not harm people, has spread to China’s neighbor, Vietnam. Eastern Europe has also suffered an outbreak and Belgium has found the virus in wild boar.

To prevent the disease from entering the United States, the USDA said it will work with Customs and Border Patrol agents to add 60 beagle teams at key U.S. commercial ports, seaports and airports, for a total of 179 teams.

The dogs will help expand arrival screenings as U.S. authorities check cargo for illegal pork products and ensure that travelers who pose a risk to spreading African swine fever (ASF) receive extra inspections, according to the USDA.

“We understand the grave concerns about the ASF situation overseas,” said Greg Ibach, the agency’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

The USDA will also ramp up inspections of facilities that feed garbage to livestock to ensure the waste is cooked properly to prevent potential disease spread, according to a statement.

Hogs can be infected by African swine fever by direct contact with infected pigs or by eating garbage containing meat and or meat products from infected pigs.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

Alabama finds atypical mad cow case, no human threat seen

(Reuters) – An 11-year-old cow in Alabama tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Tuesday.

The cow tested positive for the atypical L-type of BSE after exhibiting clinical signs at an Alabama livestock market, the USDA said in a press release. Atypical BSE can arise spontaneously in cattle herds, usually in animals 8 years old or older.

“This animal never entered slaughter channels and at no time presented a risk to the food supply, or to human health in the United States,” the USDA said. “Following delivery to the livestock market the cow later died at that location.”

The Alabama cow is the fifth detection of BSE in the United States, four of which were atypical.

“This finding of an atypical case will not change the negligible risk status of the United States, and should not lead to any trade issues,” the USDA added.

The only classical BSE case was an animal found in 2003 at a Washington farm that was imported from Canada and born before a 1997 ban on the use of cattle feed containing brain or spinal tissue, which can result in transmission of the disease.

China last month resumed imports of U.S. beef for the first time since banning them following the 2003 scare.

First detected in Britain in the 1980s, classical mad cow ravaged herds in parts of Europe until the early 2000s and was linked to the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

(Reporting by Michael Hirtzer; editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. bans fresh Brazil beef imports over safety concerns

A customer (R) pays for his meat at the Municipal Market in Sao Paulo October 10, 2014. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The United States halted imports of fresh Brazilian beef on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said, after a high percentage of shipments failed to pass safety checks.

The USDA had “recurring concerns about the safety of the products intended for the American market,” after increasing tests on Brazilian beef in March, according to a statement.

The agency raised scrutiny on Brazilian beef and ready-to-eat products as a precaution following an investigation into corruption involving Brazil’s health inspectors that targeted meat companies JBS SA <JBSS3.SA> and BRF SA <BRFS3.SA>.

JBS, the world’s largest meat packer, declined to comment on the U.S. ban.

The USDA’s action threatens the reputation of meat from Brazil, the world’s top exporter of beef and poultry, even though the United States is not a top customer. It also could boost domestic sales in the United States.

“Product was already on the water and that’s not going to be allowed in,” Altin Kalo, a U.S. livestock analyst at Steiner Consulting Group, said about shipments headed to the United States from Brazil via boat.

Since March, the USDA has rejected 11 percent of Brazilian fresh beef products, compared to the rejection rate of 1 percent for shipments from the rest of the world, the agency said. The shipments, totaling about 1.9 million pounds, raised concerns about public health, animal health and sanitation, according to the USDA.

The agency said none of the rejected lots made it into the U.S. market.

The move to block Brazilian meat is a turnaround for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who warned in March that Brazil might retaliate if the United States halted beef imports.

On Thursday, he said in a statement that “although international trade is an important part of what we do at USDA, and Brazil has long been one of our partners, my first priority is to protect American consumers.”

The U.S. suspension will remain in place until Brazil’s Agriculture Ministry “takes corrective action which the USDA finds satisfactory,” according to the agency.

A slew of global buyers, including China, Egypt and Chile, curtailed imports of Brazilian meat after Brazilian federal police unveiled an investigation into alleged corruption in the sector on March 17.

Brazilian authorities said at the time that meat companies made payments to government health officials to forego inspections and cover up health violations.

China is not expected to follow the U.S. move as it only permits imports of frozen Brazilian beef, which has different requirements to fresh meat, said analysts.

Brazil is also China’s top beef supplier, and would be difficult to replace in the short-term, said Pan Chenjun, senior animal protein analyst at Rabobank.

The United States began allowing shipments of fresh beef from Brazil last year after banning them due to concerns about foot and mouth disease in cattle.

(Additional reporting by Michael Hirtzer in Chicago, Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo and Dominique Patton in Beijing.; Editing by David Gregorio and Bill Trott)