While many in the swine industry have characterized the COVID-19 pandemic as a "black swan" event, David Preisler prefers to say the industry was hit with a "curve ball."
"Especially with a major league curve ball, that just drops out of the air like that, even if you know it's coming, it can be almost impossible to hit and the best pitchers hide it to where it's really difficult for the hitter to know what's coming in the beginning," Preisler says. "Now there are a few people out there that probably knew that the COVID was coming, especially as they observed some things that were going on over in Asia. But I think the reality is that most people didn't, and it was just something that folks had to adjust to on the fly."
During the Allen D. Leman Swine Conference, the Minnesota Pork Producers Association CEO highlighted just how difficult it was for the U.S. swine industry to be the first to take that curve ball, with packing plants across the Midwest forced to close down due to COVID-19 cases and the politics involved in getting those plants back up and operating.
"The learning curve was multifaceted," Preisler says. "You had learning about testing, separating people, PPE, lunchrooms, locker rooms, dealing with fear of the employees, dealing with public health officials that plants probably never dealt before and dealing with some of the politics that come with this."
Preisler says Minnesota was fortunate to have a letter of non-enforcement that the National Pork Producers Council worked on from the Department of Justice, so MPPA could talk with farms and see where they were at with backups and the number of animals they would need to put down, in order to prepare. Rendering was used most often for disposal. However, Preisler points to the 250,000 hogs that were basically given away as a "testament to the producers and how they were able to pull some of that off."
What did Minnesota pork producers learn quickly? Preisler says the past functional exercises held for foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever were not applicable and nowhere near as detailed as they needed to be.
"During those exercises, the bulk of the actual time was spent on permitting, sampling, biosecurity, testing, tracing, communications, coordination. There was very, very little time, in hindsight, spent on depop[ulation] and disposal," Preisler says. "We were told during those meetings that USDA would come in and would assist and work with contractors to do depop and disposal, very similar to how it worked out with the avian influenza experiences that we have had here in Minnesota and some other parts of the country."
Preisler says that was far from the case during the pandemic. At first, the USDA sent state animal health agencies to fill out applications for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, FEMA offers assistance more from a public health or infrastructure standpoint, and since that was not what the U.S. pork industry was dealing with, applications were denied.
The veterinary stockpile was not adequate either. Preisler says it consisted mainly of gates and manual captive bolts.
"It is grossly underfunded, and there really wasn't a whole lot there to really use in a true sort of emergency if we'd have to put down large numbers of animals," Preisler says.
Preisler says most of the credit needs to go to the producers and veterinarians who led the solutions through the supply chain disruptions, whether that was finding different ways to hold pigs or how to efficiently conduct depopulation and disposal. He also praises the rendering industry for stepping up and helping, the leadership of the state veterinarians and state departments of agriculture and the response from the national and state pork organizations. He's also found throughout these supply chain disruptions just how much those connections and relationships matter.
"There were some really positive relationships that plants had within their communities. There were some, that quite honestly, were exposed as you work through those," Preisler says. "I'm not picking on any particular company because there were some companies, they may have had good relationships in one community and then maybe didn't have good relationships in another. But I think one of the big learnings, and I know there's some packing companies that have now invested in hiring new people to work on some of these relationships, but again, it was just really exposed."
In Minnesota, Preisler worked directly with Gov. Tim Walz and state government to make sure packing plants did not get "thrown under the bus automatically" and that state's pork producers had some cover from media in their depopulation and disposal efforts, if needed. While there was significant media coverage of the supply chain disruptions — 2,400 articles and broadcasts during a 60-day period, with 700 of them published in one day — Preisler says mainstream media coverage on the farm side was fair.
"You got to remember this had nothing to do with food safety whatsoever, so that was taken off the table and really wasn't a problem to deal with, but what we really saw is that shift, that people really cared about workers, and so that ultimately caused us to shift how we communicated," Preisler says. "We really tried to focus the impact on family farms and rural communities, because ultimately if there's less dollars coming into that rural community, it's really tough on them."
No more passes
Preisler says he doesn't have a "magic crystal ball" when it comes to the future of the industry, but one thing is certain, "we have to do whatever we can to not repeat what went on."
"I think workers are an absolute key in this thing at plants, and we cannot forget about that. I think that's going to be a key piece going forward here," Preisler says. "There will be fallout politically if we can't figure this out. We've got an industry that is super, super efficient and I'm proud to work with all the folks that are in it, but I think we're going to get a little bit of a pass with what happened this first time, but we're going to have to figure this thing out going forward. I am confident we will."