Farmer: Food is a national security issue, coronavirus breaking supply chain

SEATTLE -- In Cowlitz County, 16 employees have now tested positive for the coronavirus at Foster Farms. It's just one example of many across the state and country where the outbreak is threatening the food supply and the workers who provide it.

The devastating consequences of these outbreaks will eventually reach the grocery store shelves, according to Dwayne Faber, a dairy farmer in western Washington. But before consumers see the impact, farmers are being forced to make some very difficult decisions.

Headlines across the country detail concerns about worker safety, dumping milk, destroying crop and even euthanizing animals that can't be processed because the plants -- dealing with outbreaks -- can't keep up with the supply.

"Whatever the consumer is feeling, that deep down, the struggle and the pain they see when that happens, the farmer feels that tenfold because we are emotionally invested into these animals" Faber said. "Literally, blood, sweat and tears has gone into raising these animals and caring for them and we want to honor their life by raising them up into maturity."

He said it's unfortunate and heartbreaking that the supply chain cannot keep up with the impacts of COVID-19. For those in the food industry, that's meant a steep decline in demand for products as restaurants and schools remain closed. For milk in Washington, it's meant the price has dropped from $18 to $12 in about two months time, Faber said.

In the Midwest, some dairy farmers are being forced to dump milk because demand cannot keep up with the product. In Washington, Faber said it hasn't come to that yet and the cooperative he sells to, Darigold, announced Wednesday it is doubling donations to local food banks in the state to help with food security issues for families and find a place for farmers' milk.

However, Faber warns that as farms and plants alike continue to struggle with coronavirus outbreaks, consumers will start to see a difference at their local grocery store. He said while he doesn't think the country is at risk of running out of food, he does see the potential to have shortages of certain types of food as the supply chain struggles in the face of the outbreak.

"Food is a national security issue and we need to protect those channels and protect those lines of food and hopefully we're finding ways to navigate that," he said.

Efforts also continue to try to protect the workers who are critical to that line. United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says at least 20 meatpacking union members have died of the virus and thousands more are showing symptoms. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an order to keep meat processing plants open to protect food supply.

In Washington state, the Department of Health has drafted emergency coronavirus regulations for housing temporary agricultural workers. The changes are expected to be adopted Friday.