Editorial


Outbreak of COVID-19 in Oregon Mink

12/03/2020

The Oregon Department of Agriculture has announced that an outbreak of COVID-19 has occurred on a mink farm in Marion County the location of eleven operations.  The outbreak was reported on November 19th and the farm was placed under quarantine on November 23rd

 

Oregon officials have been extremely tight-lipped as to the location of the farm or whether or not workers have been infected as in Holland, Denmark and Spain.  Oregon has the fourth largest mink population after Wisconsin, Utah and Michigan all of which have reported cases in mink. 

 

Animal rights groups and public health organizations have urged depletion of affected mink farms although action by state authorities appears to be confined to quarantine and isolation of farm workers.  Despite the assurances that COVID-19 circulating in a concentration of highly susceptible animals represents no danger to the human population, authorities in Oregon are either unaware of or are deliberately ignoring the mutation that has occurred among mink in Denmark. This strain has extended to community transmission among humans. 

 

Oregon officials stated that they had no plans to initiate surveillance.  This is evidently a don't look-don't find strategy that will ultimately rebound to the obvious detriment of mink farmers, but also potentially humans.  The spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Agriculture stated, "there is no evidence that animals including mink are playing a significant role in the spread of COVID-19 to people".  She added, "currently in the U.S. there is no evidence of mink-to-human spread, however, investigations are ongoing". 

 

This is an obviously a case of a state department of agriculture protecting a local non-essential livestock industry and thereby "ignoring the greater issue of health".  As previously stated, the "assurances" by state agricultural spokespersons are eerily reminiscent of similar assurances provided by the Ministry of Agriculture in the U.K. regarding bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or ‘mad cow disease’) in 1997 before it became evident that BSE was a foodborne zoonosis responsible for atypical and fatal Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease.


 

Evaluation of Masking to Prevent COVID-19

12/02/2020

It is generally accepted by public health authorities that until an effective vaccine is deployed and achieves immunity in 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. population, prevention will have to depend on more elementary protective measures.  These include masking, avoiding large gatherings, and maintaining social distancing in addition to increasing air exchange rates in confined areas such as packing plants.

 

The wearing of masks to prevent what is predominantly an aerosol transmitted infection is generally accepted.  Regrettably in months leading up to the November general election masks were politicized, deterring adoption of this elementary and inexpensive preventive measure, especially in rural communities.

 

Models evaluated by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict that if 95 percent of state residents wore masks regularly in public, more than 1,400 COVID-19 deaths would be averted through March 1st.  The rapidly ascending incidence of COVID-19 in all states, and especially those in the Pacific Northwest, has led to greater mask compliance.  The University of Washington Institute determined that the use of masks, when outside homes, increased from 50 percent in July to 70 percent in mid-November.  Dr. Judith Wasserheit, Chair of the University of Washington Department of Global Health, stated “I think we all recognize that COVID-19 infections are exploding and the data are clear that masks are one of the best prevention tools we have.” 

 

Accordingly, the University of Washington will undertake a study of the motivation to wear masks and to determine how health departments and other state and local agencies should focus messaging to increase compliance.  The University of Washington study will be sponsored by the Washington Department of Health. Data will be collected among communities across King County, including the metropolitan area of Seattle. Emphasis will be placed on retail outlets including supermarkets and big-box stores, neighborhood markets and parks to determine the proportion of individuals wearing masks with respect to gender and age.  The intent of the study is to determine locations where mask usage is lowest and to establish the demographics of non-compliers. It is anticipated that other counties may follow with their own investigations using the King County template.

 

Opponents to wearing masks are frequently deniers of COVID-19 as a significant infection. Apparently those who reject the reality of the pandemic fail to recognise 13 million diagnosed cases and 265,000 fatalities since January 2020. Those opposed to mask-wearing invoke discomfort and peer pressure. They are frequently also anti-vaxxers and regard recommendations by health authorities as an intrusion on personal freedom.

 

To justify noncompliance, pseudoscientific justifications gleaned from the internet are invoked.  A frequently quoted study that did not demonstrate any significant advantage from masking was conducted in Denmark. The trial compared the incidence rate of COVID-19 among volunteers either wearing or not wearing masks in public.  A total of 3,030 participants were assigned to the mask group and 2,994 to the controls.  Of the 4,862 who completed the study, 1.8 percent of the masked group contracted COVID-19 compared to 2.1 percent of the non-masked controls representing a non-statistically significant difference.  The trial was flawed by a low incidence rate over the duration of the comparison and the fact that the masked group effectively only complied with the mask requirement in public for half of the time.  It is regretted that this publication has been misquoted and used by opponents of masking, despite the obvious deficiencies in experimental design and execution.

 

It is reiterated that until immunization is achieved through extensive vaccination, masking and other common sense precautions as recommended by public health authorities and reputable scientists will be essential to suppress the escalating incidence of COVID-19. Without suppressing the incidence rate of COVID-19 we will not be able to restore our economy and return to a “new-normal” way of life.

 

*Bundgaard, H. et al Effectiveness of Adding a Mask Recommendation to Other Public Health Measures to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Infection in Danish Mask Wearers. Annals of Internal Medicine. doi.org/10.7326/M20-6817


 

Review and Authorization of COVID Vaccines

11/25/2020

It is axiomatic that restoration of our economy will be dependent on an effective vaccine accepted by at least 60 percent of our population. During the past two weeks, Pfizer and Moderna have publicized preliminary data in press releases indicating over 90 percent effectiveness of their respective mRNA vaccines. Both Pfizer and Moderna conducted their trials in the U.S. in addition to other nations and have submitted data to the FDA to be considered for emergency use authorization. (EUA).

 

It is noted that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires a critical cold chain that will represent logistic problems in distribution.  The Moderna vaccine has a less rigorous temperature requirement that will facilitate widespread administration especially in rural areas.

 

 On Monday, November 23rd, AstraZeneca noted that their adenovirus-vectored COVID vaccine was up to 90 percent effective when administered to recipients according to a specific dose sequence, as part of their Phase-3 trial. Using two similar full doses they achieved 60 percent protection. The AstraZeneca vaccine developed in collaboration with Oxford University is a more conventional vaccine than the Moderna and Pfizer mRNA products and is based on a simian (Ad5) adenovirus vector with inserted genes coding for SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Two doses of this vaccine are required but the product can be stored under conventional refrigeration. AstraZeneca will complete their dossier before the end of the year. The Russian ‘Sputnik-5’ vaccine is similar in principle to the AstraZenica vaccine but uses two different adenovirus vectors for the first (Ad26) and second (Ad5) doses. The Novovax subunit vaccine has yet to be tested.

 

On Sunday November 22nd Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) explained the review sequence to approve a COVID vaccine.

 

  • The company manufacturing the vaccine must compile data, subjected to rigorous statistical analysis in a dossier including details of the development and manufacture of the vaccine, the protocol for trials and the results with an interpretation
  • The portfolio is reviewed by NIAID
  • The company submits the application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be critically and comprehensively reviewed by career scientists with specific expertise in the fields of virology, statistics, pathology and infectious diseases.
  • The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee external to the FDA also reviews the data and makes a recommendation. This body is scheduled to convene on December 10th having previously studied the submission by each applicant for approval.
  • The Commissioner of the FDA reviews the recommendations of the internal career scientists and the Advisory Committee before granting emergency use authorization
  • Permanent approval is subject to a formal and more rigorous review including safety data and duration of immune response based on longer-term application over a larger number of recipients

 

The application by AstraZeneca may be delayed in the U.S. given questions over efficacy in relation to dose and review of their Phase-3 trial that was conducted simultaneously in the U.S., South Africa, Brazil, the UK and other EU nations.  It is anticipated that emergency use authorization will be granted by regulators in the UK and EU based on an evaluation of results and that this vaccine will be distributed in both industrialized and developing nations.

 

In commenting on the reported 95 percent efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated, "it can't get much better than that.  I think what people need to appreciate - and that’s what I have said like maybe a hundred times in the last week or two - is the process by which a decision is made".  Facui noted that Dr. Stephen Hahn, the Commissioner of the FDA has publicly vowed that he will accede to the opinions of the career scientist and the Advisory Board and his decision will be independent of any political pressure.  The companies producing vaccines under the DHHS ‘Warp Speed’ program issued a statement in October amid pre-election rhetoric and implied pressure that they would only submit data to FDA when they were convinced that their respective vaccines were both safe and effective as demonstrated in approved Phase-3 trials.

 

The question of acceptability is now the major challenge facing immunization of the U.S. population.  Our citizens must be confident that vaccines have been thoroughly tested in order to achieve a compliance rate in excess of 60 percent of those eligible using a two-dose program.  Currently there is considerable concern over efficacy and safety as evidenced by surveys that show a low intent to receive the vaccine when it becomes available.  Administering the small quantity of available vaccine in late December to medical care-givers, first responders and those at high risk of complications will improve confidence. The fact that there is now interaction and cooperation between the current and the incoming administration will ensure a smooth transition with seamless execution. Hopefully initial experience denoting acceptable immunity and freedom from adverse reactions will lead to high rates of uptake when vaccines become available to the general public in adequate quantities during the second quarter of 2021 onwards.


 

Smithfield Foods Settles with Plaintiffs over North Carolina Hog Nuisance Cases

11/23/2020

In 2014, five hundred residents of homes in close proximity to farms either owned by or contracted to Smithfield Foods filed nuisance lawsuits.  Five cases went to trial resulting in jury verdicts in favor of plaintiffs who were awarded substantial direct and punitive damages.  In accordance with a hastily enacted state law, punitive damage awards were reduced to approximately $100 million.  Smithfield Foods appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA claiming irregularities in the trials heard by the U.S. District Court in Raleigh, NC. Two of the judges on the panel of three denied the appeal for a new trial with one dissenter, Judge G. Steven Agee.

 

Subsequent to the denial of appeal Smithfield decided to settle with the plaintiffs.  Keira Lombardo, Chief Administrative Officer spun the legal outcome stating, “In the midst of a global pandemic, where food shortages are commonplace it is now time to keep our full attention on the important work of producing good food in a responsible and sustainable way rather than returning to the court for what would be an ongoing and distracting litigation.” 


NC Hog farm with lagoons

Evidence in the five trials showed that there were alternatives to the traditional system of storing hog waste in lagoons followed by spraying on pasture resulting in odor complaints.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys claimed that the company was aware of the problems caused by their contractors’ manure disposal and were cognizant of technical solutions, but “willfully chose not to do anything about it.” According to plaintiffs’ attorneys, Wallace and Graham, the law firm opted to sue Smithfield Foods rather than the contractors based on the depth of the pockets of the integrator Smithfield a subsidiary of the WH Group of China.

 

 In his opinion, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III referred to “outrageous conditions at Kenlaw Farms.”  citing neglect of both animal and human welfare.  The opinion which has now entered case law supports the contentions of Senator Cory Booker [D-NJ] and Senator Elizabeth Warren [D-MA] who are promoting legislation to ban all CAFOs.  Judge Wilkinson referred to the “decades-long transition to concentrated animal feeding operations that lays bare the connection between animal welfare and human welfare and the consequences of its breach.”

 

In reality the problem is not attributable to either the large numbers of hogs held on a single farm or their stocking density. Generation of odor and contamination of groundwater is due to the primitive waste disposal system inconsistent with the volume of fecal material produced.  As with egg-production farms that previously used flush removal of manure with lagoons systems, the the installations on hog-CAFOs in North Carolina provided inadequate storage and relied on frequent spray application on limited areas of pasture for disposal.  If Smithfield Foods and other hog producers wish to remain in North Carolina and possibly other states, given the precedent created by these five cases, alternate technology including anaerobic digestors will be required at considerable capital costs.

 

Given the prospect of  more stringent environmental regulations to be imposed by the incoming Administration and the reaities of tort law, all operators of CAFOs including egg-production complexes should consider the potential for nuisance and environmental degradation from their operations. Many existing and new complexes have invested in manure drying and composting installations to turn the liability of manure into a positive income stream. 

 

The Smithfield Foods cases will have profound implications for all intensive livestock production. The technology to be a good neighbor and steward of the environment is available and the clock is ticking.


 

Immunization of the American Population Against COVID-19

11/16/2020

It is thankfully apparent that at least the U.S. now has two COVID-19 candidate vaccines represented by the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Therapeutics mRNA-based products. Both vaccines have proven effective and safe as demonstrated by extensive field trials reported in press releases by the two companies. Emergency Use Approval by the Food and Drug Administration is expected in late December following expedited but thorough scientific review.

 

Both vaccines are based on mRNA coding for spike proteins of the virus that stimulate production of antibodies. Developed under the inappropriately named “Warp Speed” program and funded to a level of $10 billion both vaccines require and initial dose followed by a second ‘booster’ at intervals of 3 to 4 weeks depending on type and future field experience.

 

The Federal government funded the developers of vaccines to concurrently refine development of the antigenic mRNA and to establish a production capability so that vaccines would be available shortly after FDA approval.  Approximately 50 million doses of the two vaccines will be ready for distribution during the first two months of 2021 with larger quantities thereafter.

 

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -100F but remains potent for 10 days at -78F corresponding to the temperature of dry ice. The Moderna vaccine can be stored at -4F for extended periods but requires a temperature of 35 to 45F corresponding to a conventional refrigerator, for no longer than 30 days.

 

The Federal government has arranged for the military to coordinate the acquisition and distribution of vaccine and has stockpiled adequate quantities of vials, needles and other consumables to support a nationwide vaccination program. It is however evident that the commercial sector with experience in cold-chain logistics will have to be involved. Fedex and UPS will be the most likely carriers, medical supply companies such as McKesson will provide local storage and distribution. Pfizer has planned a $2 billion program to install low-temperature freezers in warehouses and has developed transport modules containing dry ice to support their product.

 

Pharmacies eligible under the Federal Pharmacy Partnerships Strategy for COVID-19 Vaccination will participate in administration to recipients.  This may be impractical since the proposed COVID vaccines are more difficult to store and inject than an annual flu-shot.  Even if half our population agree to receive the vaccine, with a two-dose program it will be necessary to administer 310 million doses in eight to ten months subject to the availability of vaccine. Given the stringent requirements for storage and handling of the Pfizer vaccine, it isdoubtful whether conventional pharmacies, whether as stores or located in supermarkets will be able to achieve the required rate of administration or to maintain viability of the product. (Given paperwork, an available pharmacist and no line of people waiting, my annual influenza vaccination in September took 30 minutes in a CVS pharmacy). Given the logistic complications involved and the need for rapid administration and to establish a reliable database, it will probably be necessary for recipients to attend vaccination clinics at hospitals, national guard armories or convention centers equipped to store and handle vaccine that must be administered at a high rate.

 

The most pressing problem relates to whether citizens are willing to take the vaccine.  Various surveys have shown a projected compliance rate of 20 to 50 percent.  Unfortunately, the question of vaccination was politicized along with many aspects of the prevention and control of COVID including the collection, reporting and analysis of data. The selection of the term "Warp-Speed" for the development of the program was extremely inappropriate since it created an image of speed at the expense of science.  Many prospective recipients are concerned over safety and to a lesser extent efficacy given the statements from Administration spokespersons and contradictory information from established public health specialists. Prospective recipients of vaccine have been confused by deliberate underplaying of the gravity of the Covid-19 epidemic in the U.S. We have been subject to official denial regarding the severity of the infection and the need for testing in the face of ascending incidence and fatality rates. The control of COVID-19 by non-medical modalities has not been supported by the Federal government and has been delegated (or abrogated) to states. Confidence in vaccines among our polarized citizenry has been adversely affected by denigrating and criticizing established and recognized professionals in the areas of epidemiology and those with experience in developing and administrating vaccines and the control of infectious diseases. Suspicion that agencies including the FDA, NIH and the CDC were subject to political pressure to approve ineffective therapeutics as a “quick-fix” expedient and downplaying the significance of COVID-19 have all generated a disinclination to be at the head of the line to receive a vaccination.

 

Fortunately, the pharmaceutical industry and specifically the manufacturers of vaccines issued a joint statement in October confirming that they would only submit data and request FDA approval when they were confident that the vaccine was both safe and effective based on field trials. To this point there was concern that November 3rd was a critical date for approval based on political considerations.  It will be the responsibility of the incoming Administration to restore confidence and to convince the public that the FDA will base approval on evaluation only of scientific data.

 

It is considered significant that the first action taken by president-elect Biden was to establish a COVID taskforce of twelve leading academics all with practical experience in areas of epidemiology and public health. Cooperation in the form of a joint transitional task force on planning and execution of a difficult vaccination program will be essential to successful protection against COVID-19 and saving lives.

 

It is an established fact that until COVID-19 is controlled, there cannot be a restoration of either a normal life or our economy.  The alternative approach of ignoring COVID and making belief that it did not exist has resulted in over 10 million cases, 250,000 fatalities and billions of dollars in cost and hardship.  We cannot look back but must make the best use of available vaccines, prioritized to our first line responders and those with predisposing conditions.  Hopefully the initial vaccination program will be successful and that progressively more citizens will be immunized.  The theory of herd immunity from natural exposure has been disproved and is now the preoccupation of political hacks, science deniers, charlatans and mountebanks. Ultimately, to control COVID-19 we will have to rely on a combination of common-sense precautions combined with effective vaccines.  Until a high proportion of our population is immunized, we will be dependent on masking, social distancing and avoiding crowds. These precautions will be required as we attempt to "flatten the curve" for the third time.

 

We owe our scientists both in basic molecular biology and applied vaccinology our gratitude.  We are indebted to first responders for the care of those who have contracted COVID and we extend our condolences to the bereaved among us as every one of the quarter million fatalities was once a living functioning person with a family, aspirations and future opportunities.


 

Questions over China’s Commitment to Phase-One Trade Agreement

11/03/2020

Agricultural commodities represent 22 percent of the products covered in the January 2020 Phase-One trade agreement with China.  Despite optimistic projections by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, actual deliveries of commodities have fallen short of the commitment entered into by China.  Orders lagged through the 2019-2020 marketing year although there has been an increase through September and into the subsequent market year. It is calculated that China will need to import 62 percent of their commitment during the fourth quarter of the current year to comply with the 2020 target.

 

Soybeans comprised 60 percent of U.S. agricultural exports to China in 2017. Following the initiation of the trade conflict, China turned to other suppliers of soybeans resulting in U.S. exports through September 2020 attaining half of pre-2018 levels.  An added complication was the reduced demand by China following the loss of up to 30 percent of their hog herd as a result of African swine fever.  Although China requires corn and is now importing this commodity the impetus is partly a result of a 2019 World Trade Organization ruling concerning unfilled tariff rate quotas. Despite the requirement for imported corn China turned to other suppliers than the U.S. 

 

The trend in exports of both industrial goods and agricultural commodities from 2018 onwards suggests that trade wars are not “short and easily won”.  Tariffs on imported goods are borne by consumers not the exporting nation.  Federal subsidies to the agricultural sector in 2019 and 2020 to compensate for losses in exports were effectively at the expense of taxpayers, adding to the national debt.

 

Trade disputes with nations such as China should be resolved by negotiation and the use of international agencies such as the WTO rather than embarking on self-destructive tariff wars that invite retaliation.  Confronting the World’s second largest economy should not have involved a precipitous head-on confrontation in 2017. Resolution of real grievances could be achieved more easily through cooperation and collaborative action with our erstwhile allies who are faced with similar problems of China extending subsidies to state-owned enterprises, coercive trade practices and theft of intellectual property.


 

The Need to Control COVID-19

10/31/2020

The statement by White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, in a CNN interview on Sunday, October 25th is cause for concern.  He averred, “we are not going to control the pandemic, instead we will focus on vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.”  In the week running up to the November 2020 election, the U.S. has recorded 9.0 million diagnosed cases and 230,000 fatalities. Incident cases rose to 80,000 per day with more than 1,000 fatalities.  Both the incidence and mortality rates are understatements given deficiencies in testing and assigning the cause of death.  Worldwide there have been 44 million diagnosed cases with over 1.4 million deaths.  It is evident that the U.S. is experiencing an upsurge in cases with daily reports of new cases approaching 80,000 with close to 50,000 currently hospitalized.  The COVID pandemic has profoundly impacted the economy of our nation as evidenced by high unemployment, low and fluctuating earnings reported by public companies and a stock market that shed close to six percent of shareholder value over four consecutive trading days.

 

The actions of the Administration have been widely criticized, both by public health specialists within the U.S. and by the World Health Organization.  Effectively, the Administration has adopted the Swedish model and has embraced the Great Barrington Declaration.  Simply put, this approach involves relaxation of most restrictions but with attempts to protect the elderly and those with predisposing conditions, including diabetes, obesity, and immunosuppression.  These demographics unfortunately represent close to a third of our population. 

 

Although politically comforting and expedient, science does not support the principle of “herd immunity” with respect to COVID. Herd immunity has never been achieved with any disease absent an effective vaccine stimulating durable immunity.  Evidence from Stockholm suggests that the level of antibodies in the population is far lower than the threshold of at least 50 percent of the population required to meaningfully control the infection.  There is insufficient knowledge concerning the antibody status of those recovering from COVID-19 irrespective of whether they were asymptomatic or required supportive treatment. The proponents of herd-immunity appear to ignore the long-term consequences of infection. The virus is pantropic in its effect with both cardiac and neural changes in addition to fatigue in the so-called “long haulers”.  

 

Prominent epidemiologists have calculated that without currently-known measures including masking, maintaining social distance, and avoiding large gatherings, cases from COVID-19 will  be measured in the millions over the coming year with a proportional rise in fatalities.  It is a disquieting thought that correcting for the relative sizes of the U.S. population, the 1918 outbreak of H1N1 influenza resulted in as many fatalities expressed as a rate by October 1918 as the U.S. has experienced with COVID.

 

Epidemiologists and public health specialists have issued the John Snow Memorandum to counter the fallacies and illogic of the Great Barrington Declaration.  They characterize the approach to ignoring known preventive measures to create herd immunity as a gigantic gamble, hoping for a rapid  return to pre-COVID social and economic activities.

 

It may be inferred from the statement by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that the Administration will depend on protection from an as yet unavailable and unapproved vaccine.  Despite the efforts of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers, a vaccine will not be generally available until the beginning of 2021.  Pfizer, the apparent leader in the race, has yet to conclude the evaluation of their Phase-3 trial involving 40,000 participants conducted in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, and Turkey.  Results of the trial should be available by the end of November, after which statistical analysis and peer review will be required before approval by the FDA.  Pfizer anticipates 164 cases of COVID in their trial but an interim evaluation will consider efficacy after 35 cases have been diagnosed in the trial population.  If 26 are in the placebo group, the vaccine could be approved by the FDA on the basis of 50 percent efficacy.  Moderna will evaluate their vaccine after 53 cases and AstraZeneca after 75 COVID diagnoses in their respective trial groups. 

 

Even if a vaccine is approved at the beginning of January 2021 only sufficient quantities will be available to commence distribution to priority groups including first responders, the elderly, and those with predisposing conditions. Two doses with a month interval will be required to stimulate durable immunity. Appropriate monitoring will be required for at least three months after initiating mass vaccination to distinguish between any possible adverse vaccine reactions and the large number of spontaneous but unrelated clinical conditions and mortalities that are sure to occur among recipients of the vaccine.

 

Mass vaccination will impose logistic challenges in distributing and administering a biological product that requires a critical cold chain.  Simply stating that “the Army will do it” is more an aspiration than a specific plan.  The reluctance of a high proportion of the U.S. population to receive a vaccine will obviously reduce the proportion of those that become immune within the population.  It is yet unknown whether development of antibodies will actually provide protection from clinical effects or reduce the extent of virus shedding.  An additional unknown is the durability of antibody levels in the face of ongoing challenge and the possible mutation of SARS-CoV-2 over time.  It is possible that as with other coronavirus infections, annual re-vaccination may be required, but this challenge is in the future. 

 

It is accepted that there will be a delay in obtaining sufficient quantities of presumably effective vaccines, logistic complications associated with distribution and administration and reluctance to be immunized. This suggests that we must continue to adopt measures that have been shown to be effective in nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, and even China.  These nations adopted rapid testing for antigen with strict quarantine of those shown to be exposed, contact tracing, masking, and social distancing.  The countries that have achieved the  greater success in controlling COVID have followed the advice of scientists and have a culture that accepts masks and are willing to conform to health directives.

 

From the perspective of our industry, we must apply scientific principles, eschewing quick fixes and false prophets.  With the onset of winter we must ensure a high level of immunity against seasonal influenza, that will be a complicating factor both with  respect to the diagnosis and clinical response to COVID infection.  We must increase the efficiency of testing with quarantine and contract tracing and apply common sense in our business and social activities. 

 

Experience over the past nine months has shown that COVID cannot be ignored.  There is no evidence that the infection will spontaneously disappear and without appropriate control measures, we could experience a replay of the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic.  We have yet to receive an effective vaccine, there is no consistently effective or specific therapeutic agent (the Administration ‘cure’). We are relying on the stretched resources of our medical community who are reducing mortality by administering supportive therapy and a high level of care.

 

COVID-19 dominates all aspects of our life at present and we will not return to normality until it is controlled.  We have a collective responsibility to respond to sound scientific advice and over the intermediate term, suppress the incidence rate especially in rural areas where our farms and packing plants are located.


 

Conflict Between Ethanol Industry and Oil Refiners

10/26/2020

COVID has markedly reduced gasoline consumption, affecting both oil refiners and ethanol producers resulting in mutual conflicts. Following the court decision that forced the EPA to reject requests for waivers from refiners, the oil refining lobby induced a number of U.S. Republican Senators to request the EPA to consider a general waiver to reduce biofuel blending obligations in 2021. 


RFS with Cellulosic Ethanol as an Aspirational Unreality

 

The granting of waivers to oil refiners is to the detriment of the hard-pressed ethanol industry that is in turn an important market for corn growers.  Oil refiners have obviously suffered from decreased demand despite the lower cost of crude contributing to a relatively constrained "crack spread". In a letter to the EPA, Senators including Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) stated, "ethanol producers and refiners should proportionally share the economic hardships associated with a current decline in fuel demands rather than having government mandates shift the burden of the former onto the latter". 

 

The American Petroleum Institute commented "EPA should move immediately to employ a general waiver to limit the 2021 obligation". 

 

Farmers should be placated by recent rises in the price of corn that closed at 420 per bushel on Friday October 23rd.  Ethanol was priced at $1.42 per gallon up 29 cents compared to a five-year low of $0.92 per gallon on March 26th.  Ethanol is 36 cents per gallon higher than gasoline quoted at $1.16 per gallon on Friday, October 23rd. 

 

The ying-yang between the American Petroleum Institute and the Renewable Fuels Association illustrates the dependence of the ethanol industry on government mandates to survive. The justification for the renewable fuels program has long since passed  with the U.S. having gained energy independence.


 

Profound Effects of COVID-19 on Current and Future Shopping Trends

10/15/2020

Market research group, C+R recently conducted a survey among 2,000 consumers concerning purchasing habits and cost of food.  Approximately 85 percent of those surveyed considered that they are paying more for groceries with an escalation in the price of protein as the major contributor to food inflation.  The respondents claim to have paid 68 percent more for meat compared to February, 48 percent more for milk and eggs, 45% for fish and 28% for poultry.

 

The figure for eggs may be misleading since prices were relatively low in February, but for the past month retail prices have demonstrated successive weekly rises as a result of seasonal demand. Escalation in the price of meat is understandable given that supply chains were seriously disrupted by COVID-19 plant shutdowns.  In contrast, poultry processing plants were relatively unaffected, and supplies were only constrained by the surge in panic buying during March.  At the present time, supply of most chicken and derived products is in balance with the demand with stable prices.  The survey did not consider turkey meat that has risen in price attributed to a judicious reduction in supply after a long period of negative margins resulting from over-production. Consumption through the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas periods will be depressed in 2020 impacting this segment of the industry.

 

The survey also showed that 75% of respondents were paying more for household goods including 59% for cleaning supplies, 39% for paper products and 33% for personal care and cosmetics.

 

A surprising 83% of respondents reported difficulty in finding specific grocery items, again reflecting disruption in supply chains. An additional factor is that food producers have narrowed their ranges of products in an attempt to rationalize the logistics and cost of manufacturing and packaging.  Approximately 90% of consumers were concerned that groceries will continue to increase in price and almost the same proportion consider that current shortages will continue. 

 

The effect of increased job losses and the delay in introducing a second stimulus package has resulted in 65 percent of consumers reducing their expenditure on food compared to the onset of the pandemic.  To economize, 43% of families are eating less meat, 33% less poultry, 31% were avoiding higher-priced organic items, and 30% are buying in bulk.  This is reflected in the quarterly sales data posted by club stores including Costco and Sam's.

 

Casting forward, shoppers do not share the Administration view that the end of COVID is "around the corner" or that the disease "will just go away soon".  Twenty-three percent consider that they will return to shopping at pre-pandemic levels only in the spring of 2021, 20 percent estimate during summer of 2021 with five percent each for the fall or winter of 2021.

 

 Disquietingly there is little confidence in a vaccine as only ten percent of those surveyed consider that the availability of an effective and safe product will encourage a return to pre-pandemic purchasing patterns. Consistent with Maslow's Hierarchy of needs, 68 percent of consumers indicated that they would devote the majority of any second stimulus check to groceries and food.

 

Consumers are concerned that a second wave of COVID-19 will result in additional shortages of grocery products and most shoppers have accepted the inevitability of higher food prices.  Contrary to the "pantry stuffing" displayed in March and early April, fully a third of respondents have stored only enough food for two weeks or less. This is possibly a reflection of growing financial restraints.

 

A further take-away from the C+R survey is that 70 percent of respondents believe that grocery shopping will change permanently. A similar proportion still express "discomfort" when shopping and 70 percent have used grocery delivery or pick up for the first time since the emergence of COVID-19.  Contrary to prevailing political rhetoric, almost half of consumers are disinclined to patronize a store that does not have a mask policy.

 

The food industry and retail grocers should accept the results of the C+R Survey and plan for a continuation in current COVID trends over the intermediate term. The willingness to return to previous patterns of selection and purchase will depend on restoration of the economy. This goal will be totally driven by realistic control of COVID through a combination of protective measures and immunity stimulated by vaccines. Societal disruptions caused by COVID will persist through 2024 including divergence in income among ethnic and cultural demographics, altered spending patterns, more stringent entertainment priorities, remote education, lower population growth and changes in location of residences. The food industry will have to be sensitive to these changes and respond accordingly.


 

Intended Strategy of Opponents to Intensive Livestock Production

10/04/2020

The recent Taking Action For Animals Conference (TAFA) held virtually on September 19th and 20th provided an insight into the strategy to be employed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and kindred organizations in future opposition to intensive livestock production.  In an October 2020 report circulated by the Animal Agriculture Alliance, it is clear that activists will capitalize on current public concern over COVID-19. HSUS and other organizations that oppose animal agriculture and promote a vegan agenda are adept at manipulating outbreaks of human disease and current public concerns to promote their cause.

 

In past years, HSUS has unjustifiably criticized commercial livestock agriculture for propagating animal diseases and increasing the risk of foodborne infections. In a departure from past claims Adam Zipkin, Counsel to U.S. senator Cory Booker (D-NJ.) stated, “Factory farms poison our environment. Factory farms create serious risks to public health.” He added without substantiation that “scientists are telling us in no uncertain terms that  the next pandemic is at least as likely to start on a factory farm here in the U.S. as it is at a wildlife market in some other country”. This is factually incorrect and unlikely since it is an epidemiologic reality that emerging viral infections including Ebola, Nipah disease, SARS, MERS and COVID had their origin in wildlife populations. The HSUS is providing a new twist to their ongoing opposition to meat consumption by suggesting that concentrated animal feeding operations serve as a potential source of new human diseases.

 

Zipkin also categorically implicated “rampant use of antibiotics in factory farms” as a factor responsible for the emergence of novel infections. Antibiotics do not act against viruses and as a counsel to a Senator, Zipkin should be aware of the statutory restrictions placed on the use of antibiotics by the Food and Drug Administration, effective January 1st 2017.

 

Without specifying diseases, Zipkin asserted that intensive agricultural operations are “breeding grounds for viruses, such as influenza, that can easily jump from farm animals to people.”  Although there is some justification for this statement, there is no specific example of an influenza pandemic originating directly from livestock.  Even the 1997 avian influenza H5N1 panornitic in China and Southeast Asia was responsible for only a limited number of cases relative to the extent of the infection in poultry and the exposure of individuals on farms and through the wet market distribution system in 50 nations.

 

Speakers at the virtual TAFA conference pointed to the prevalence of COVID-19 among workers in meat plants.  There was no evidence that workers acquired infection from the product handled. The high incidense rates from late February through April can be attributed to the proximity of workers, defective ventilation systems in plants, absence of personal protective equipment and failure to introduce test and isolation programs.  Predictably, speakers at the TAFA conference were eager to draw leap-of-faith correlations between confinement  of livestock and emergence of disease.

 

In the commentary on the TAFA conference, HSUS urged pressure on legislators to promote plant-based protein in the place of animal agriculture and to reduce the concentration of livestock.  The HSUS also calls for policies to protect natural ecosystems from agricultural expansion as exemplified in burning the fringes of the Amazon Rainforest for both cattle production and soybean cultivation in Brazil.  Although this is a laudable goal supported by this commentator, it has nothing to do with the emergence of human disease. There is only an indirect correlation between intensive agriculture and emergence of disease. Destruction of  rainforests displaces native species resulting in endemic viruses of free-living animals more accessible to humans. The same could be said for destruction of rainforests in Pacific nations to develop palm oil plantations having nothing to do with animal agriculture.

 

 The HSUS also calls for a ban on the sale of poultry at live bird markets, a sentiment which is supported as this system of distribution promotes the persistence of avian influenza and other infections. There is the possibility of emergence of new strains of avian influenza including H7N3 a pathogen of domestic birds infecting humans coming into contact with aerosols and viscera at wet markets.

 

The direction of the TAFA Conference demonstrates the cynical willingness of activist organizations to distort science and manipulate public concern to promote a vegan agenda. Their assertions have minimal scientific support. Epidemiologists recognize that emergence of human infections from wildlife, including SARS and Nipah virus and the most recent COVID-19, were bat-origin infections possibly with an intermediate reservoir host and were not in any way associated with livestock.


 

EPA Statements on Chlorpyrifos Cynically Ingenuous

09/29/2020

Environmental scientists and neurobiologists generally regarded the pesticide chlorpyrifos as being detrimental to development of the brain and nervous system of fetuses and young children.  In 2015, the previous Administration initiated a ban on the pesticide after many studies were published confirming interference in neural development.  EPA scientists at the time accepted both U.S. and international published studies that in fact led to banning the chemical in the EU. 

 

In 2017, the then EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt reversed the 2015 decision stimulating legal opposition to his decision.  The EPA was under court order to decide whether to ban chlorpyrifos no later than July 2019.  The current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has rejected petitions by organizations representing public health and the environment.

 

At issue is the requirement imposed by the EPA that they will not consider published studies in peer-reviewed journals in their deliberations and decisions unless they have access to raw data. The peer-review process evaluates experimental design, procedures, statistical analysis conclusions and the integrity of authors and their institutions. Examination of raw data is not a normal practice and is resorted to only in the event of allegations of academic dishonesty. The issue of the so-called "secret science" barrier has enabled the EPA to selectively exclude important published research studies thereby providing cover for both delays in rule-making and adverse decisions. 

 

Recently the EPA issued a statement to the effect that "despite several years of study the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects of chlorpyrifos remains unresolved".  This is a cynical and deliberate neglect of established science, placing political and economic considerations above public health and wellbeing. The EPA acknowledged to a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the Agency accepts that chlorpyrifos can cause neurodevelopmental effects. The Agency claims that there are disputes over the relationship between the level of exposure and harm. Chlorpyrifos is certainly a case for application of the precautionary principle even if scientific evidence did not support an outright ban.

 

The well being of the next generation is far more important than the narrow political agendas of decision makers who have the obligation to protect health and well being.


 

Responding to a Crisis

09/22/2020

Inevitably problems occur in shell-egg and liquid production complexes that may have consumer and customer-related implications.  Where a brand is involved, degradation of image must be avoided to minimize loss of goodwill and future sales.  In the age of social media and viral videos, an appropriate response to a crisis situation is critical to recovery and stabilization of an enterprise.

 

Within the context of egg production, the most probable crisis situations include:-

  • An egg-borne infection including but not limited to salmonellosis or listeriosis.
  • A welfare-related issue usually involving a clandestine video.
  • Allegations of worker exploitation, harassment, or unhealthful or potentially injurious working conditions or an outbreak of a disease such as COVID-19 among workers.
  • Contamination with a pesticide or chemical toxin.
  • Allegations of illegal action relating to employment of non-documented aliens, collusion over prices, fraud and deceptive labeling, contravention of the Food Safety Modernization Act or any intervention by a Federal agency.
  • Precipitation of an environmental incident including discharge of pollutants or improper use of pesticides.

 

Given that the range of possible situations is fairly predictable, appropriate planning, installation of equipment, maintenance of facilities and conformity to standard operating procedures are required to prevent situations, thereby avoiding the need to respond to a crisis. 

 

Management should encourage communication among responsible levels within the enterprise so that minor issues can be identified and resolved before the emergence of a larger and publicized crisis.  It is always advisable to rectify a small problem then to either ignore or countenance a situation that can ultimately bring down an enterprise.  This was the case with the Blue Bell Creamery that detected Listeria in their ice-cream plants but elected not to take appropriate action other than ignoring and even falsifying laboratory records until a trace-back from cases of listeriosis resulted in complete closure of all facilities for an extended period. Fines totaling $17 million were imposed in this case.

 

Predicting possible adverse advents allows management to not only implement preventive measures, but the exercise of planning for a crisis also stimulates the development of appropriate response strategies.  This involves teamwork among management and may include contributions from public relations specialists who in addition to providing advice have valuable contacts in the mainstream media.  It should be possible to develop a series of appropriate brief statements and pre-prepared videos in response to predictable events. Attempting to draft responses under pressure and deadlines will inevitably lead to subsequent corrections, retractions and confusion that will elicit further questions and will detract from the core message projected by the company.

 

The following general principles should guide a crisis response:-

  • A single spokesperson should be designated, preferably at executive officer-level who can speak with authority and favorably represent the image of the company in audio and visual media interviews.
  • If any subordinates to the spokesperson within the company comment on the crisis, information should not conflict with the message of the principal representative.
  • The initial message should clearly indicate the nature of the problem, causation and above all, what action has been or will be implemented to resolve the issue
  • Bold and immediate action is necessary to avoid placing the company on the defensive. This may involve a voluntary recall of product before mandated by a Federal agency.  Frequently legal advisors suggest a "no-comment" response.  Although justified by legal prudence, a no-comment invites suspicion and in many cases, may be viewed as an admission of responsibility from the perspective of public relations.
  • All possible media channels should be used to project the required message. This presumes that the designated spokesperson is sufficiently trained and comfortable with media interviews and questioning.  Appropriate messages can be posted on a company website, but direct interaction with individuals using social media should be avoided.  Statements should be as brief as possible but adequate to convey facts as they are known at the time.  Messages should display empathy and concern for those affected.
  • It is generally inadvisable to hide behind producer associations and allow bland statements to speak for an individual company

 

Generally a major crisis, even if resolved in the short term, will require remediation of image.  In addition, costs to resolve a crisis include recalls, lost production, defending lawsuits, settlements, operational disruption and fines imposed by Federal or state agencies.  From a review of recent crisis situations affecting U.S. and E.U. companies, it is apparent that prevention and preemptive planning is far less expensive then a belated and uncoordinated response.


 

U.S. and The World Health Organization

09/16/2020

It may be questioned why a newsletter dealing with egg production and aspects of food safety and the economics of the industry comments regularly on aspects of human health and related socio-political concerns.  Accepting the concept of One-Health, human and livestock infections and the success of the poultry industry are inseparable.  Over the past nine months, commentaries and editorials in both EGG-NEWS and sister website CHICK-NEWS have dealt with aspects of COVID-19, considered the most important issue of our generation that has had an unprecedented impact on the profitability of our industry in many ways.

 

The poultry industry is influenced by the World Organization of Animal Health (OIE) a multinational body functioning under the United Nations, Food And Agricultural Organization (FAO) that establishes standards for the control of animal diseases and maintains a database of outbreaks of both catastrophic and erosive infections of livestock.  Export of poultry and international trade in products is strongly dependent on the impartiality, management and operation of the OIE that develops recommended procedures to contain and prevent disease and establishes principles including regionalization and compartmentalization.

 

By the same token, the detection, control and prevention of diseases in our human population is the province of the United Nations, World Health Organization (WHO), representing 194 member states. In common with many multinational agencies, decisions and actions are frequently impeded by political influence that seemingly runs counter to the dictates of science.  Since its inception, the WHO was the international coordinator responsible for eradication of smallpox, almost complete eradication of polio and effective responses to emerging diseases.  If the WHO did not exist it would have to be invented. 

 

The World Health Assembly is the body responsible for establishing policy for the WHO, determining structure and priorities and appointing the Director and immediate subordinates. Effectively the U.S. is the major supporter of the WHO according to an article in the September 12th edition of The Economist. We provide one third of the $1.3 billion annual budget and U.S. epidemiologists and scientist represent ten percent of the staff of the Agency.

 

It is incongruous that the U.S., currently the World's leading nation in science and medicine, has elected to withdraw from the Agency while a pandemic is in progress. There are obviously issues concerning the performance of the WHO with respect to their response to the emergence of COVID-19. Agency inaction and alleged favoritism of China form the basis of criticism by the U.S. Administration and a justification for the impending withdrawal.  Admittedly, the Agency appeared slow to publicize the extent of the infection and to issue appropriate recommendations in January and February.  The WHO was tardy in publicizing the need for general use of masking and other protective measures and recommendations on therapy including the use of steroids to suppress the uncontrolled immune response responsible for mortality.  In their defense WHO officials claim that they were misled by China regarding the ability of the infection to be airborne and the index nation concealed the extent of COVID-19 in Wuhan the epicenter of the disease.  The WHO is dependent on cooperation by member states and the Agency maintains that it requires scientific corroboration and upper-level consensus before issuing recommendation concerning control of an infection. It is understood that the Charter restricts direct involvement in individual member nations without invitation. This inhibits providing specific directions to member nations. 

 

Recognizing deficiencies in addressing the challenges of Ebola and COVID-19, The World Health Assembly initiated a study on the response of the WHO. The objectives include levels of responsibility, possible changes in structure and resources that will be required to contain both the current outbreak and the emergence of future pandemics.

 

The Economist pointed to the disparities in financial support from member nations.  The U.S. is responsible for 32 percent of the budget with the UK as the second major donor at approximately 20 percent.  This figure is in fact matched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and far exceeds the contributions of Germany, Japan, the European Commission and even China each supporting approximately five percent of expenditure.

 

Instead of withdrawing from the WHO in a politically-motivated pique, the U.S. should encourage reform with decisions based on scientific merit and weighted by financial contribution.  In the face of pandemics, all nations must rely on concerted, science-based decisions to limit diseases that have both health and financial implications.  It is hoped that the decision to withdraw from the WHO is not irrevocable and that a more constructive approach can be developed.  This will benefit world health and directly the wellbeing of our citizens, our agriculture, our industry and our economy.


 

Climate Change is the Subject of CFTC Evaluation

09/14/2020

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) recently completed a comprehensive review of the effect of climate change on our economy.  The report entitled “Managing Climate Risk in the Financial System” was commissioned by the Board of the Commission comprising three Republican and two Democratic members who voted unanimously 12 months ago to create an advisory panel to report on the effects of global warming.  The document includes contributions by analysts affiliated to large investment firms including Morgan Stanley, S&P, and Vanguard, the oil-giants BP and Conoco Phillips and commodity trader Cargill with assistance from environmental and agricultural specialists in academia.

 

It has been the consistent policy of the Administration to downplay global warming despite credible scientific evidence from atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial studies.  The report apparently notes the devastation associated with climate change including wildfires, storms, droughts, floods and hurricanes all of which affect insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. The report incorporates recommendations for some reversal of current Administration policy regarding environmental deregulation.

 

The question is whether the report will precipitate rethinking among the Administration, many of whom are climate change deniers despite the scientific evidence and facts. The second consideration is whether corporate or Congressional action will be taken as a result of the findings of the report.  The CFTC Commission has not yet voted to accept the report. A White House spokesperson commented that the report does not necessarily represent the opinions of the Federal government.

 

Irrespective of political inclination, those of us who have children and grandchildren must recognize that the World’s use of fossil energy over the past 150 years has degraded the environment. The reliance on coal, oil and to a lesser extent gas has resulted in quantifiable atmospheric and terrestrial changes that are influencing climate, health and availability of resources. The challenge will be to convert to more environmentally friendly sources of energy including nuclear power and renewables at a cost and within a time-line that does not disrupt our economy or degrade our standard of living. The first imperative is to recognize the problem and then to develop appropriate corrective measures. Since climate change is a global phenomenon it will be necessary for the U.S. to assume a leadership role in cooperating with other nations to resolve problems that are becoming readily more apparent.


 

UK Egg Production Divided Among Free Range, Barn, and Organic Eggs

09/08/2020

John Kirkpatrick, a senior manager responsible for sourcing agricultural products for Tesco, a major U.K. grocery chain, speaking at an industry meeting confirmed that his company will market three tiers of eggs.  Organic will represent the highest level, free-range the core, and barn eggs will represent the entry level. 

 

When the EU implemented the ban on conventional cage housing commencing in 2012, many producers converted to colony modules. Since the substantial investment was made by egg producers, the market was moved to non-confinement systems making eggs from colony cages apparently undesirable.  Barn eggs, including floor systems and aviaries, represent the most economic approach to satisfying the restrictions imposed by the major chains that appear to be “out-welfaring” themselves in a competitive market. Consumers however appear to have been excluded from the exercise and have been deprived of the opportunity to purchase eggs of their choice at a price they can afford.

 

It is evident that in the U.S. a high proportion of consumers still favor low-priced eggs and in a recessionary environment, it is more than probable that by the 2025 deadline at least 30 percent, and perhaps more, of our 220 million hens producing shell eggs will remain in either enrichable cages or enriched modules.  The pace of conversion to aviary and floor systems has slowed considerably, especially with the collapse of the food service sector.  COVID restrictions resulted in closure of restaurants and diversion of shell eggs from the food service sector to the retail shell market.  Due to the slow recovery of the food service sector as many universities and schools remain closed, availability of cash to invest in conversions has dried up and banks are understandably reluctant to extend loan capital to egg producers.

 

Consumers must be allowed a choice in their purchases of eggs. Currently it is estimated that one in six children is hungry and could benefit from thee nutritional value of eggs. Neither legislators,  activists or grocery chains have the right to impose a ‘welfare tax’ on those who are least capable of feeding their families.


 




































































































































































































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