ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA, US — The last two years have brought the US feed industry its share of challenges, from dealing with the impacts of COVID-19, including supply chain nightmares and labor shortages, to an ever-increasing focus on sustainable production and growth in plant-based protein popularity. 

Constance Cullman AFIAConstance Cullman

 The American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) is constantly addressing those challenges by working with the Biden administration, collaborating with other industry groups in the United States and internationally, joining coalitions and advocating for its animal food and ingredient members. 

“We continue to see challenges in the supply chain and labor issues, those are two of the biggest issues that we’ve had, and then you layer in some of the workplace regulations,” said Constance Cullman, president and chief executive officer of the AFIA, in an interview with World Grain. “We are starting to see some victories in our efforts with the administration, working to fix some of the port problems and working to encourage agriculture jobs.”

And through each challenge, the association, which represents 650 animal food industry companies and suppliers, learns something new. From the COVID-19 pandemic, a chief take-away has been the critical nature of the animal food industry.

“We are part of the critical infrastructure of the country and part of the essential workforce,” Cullman said. “That was a major lesson that we knew, but it was really demonstrated. In some ways we were better prepared for COVID because we had been paying so much attention to biosecurity. The additional lessons we learned because of COVID is going to make us better as we plan for a potential African swine fever outbreak or other kinds of animal diseases.”

COVID challenges 

Port issues are at the heart of supply chain problems brought on by the pandemic. There are significant delays in getting product overseas as well as bringing product in, Cullman said. 

“It’s costing companies in both money and reputation,” she said. “Containers are sitting and are also being sent back over into China and other parts of the world empty. They’re not sending the empty containers back inland so that they can be loaded with product. The average consumer felt that over the holidays; we’ve been feeling that all year.”

Trucking also is impacted in terms of local delivery and cross-country transit. The AFIA is working with the government to make modifications to regulations that allow for better recruitment of drivers, Cullman said. 

“The other big supply chain issue we’ve been dealing with is the intermittent disruption of supplies,” she said. “When we have facilities that are overseas go down or reduce staff due to COVID, that is very challenging. While many of our ingredients are of US origin, some of them can only be sourced outside of the US.”

Several AFIA members have been concerned because their ability to meet customers’ schedules and demands has suffered when they can’t get the inputs they need. 

“A lot of them are the preferred supplier because of their reliability and ability to deliver product when it’s needed,” Cullman said. “They have proactively reached out to customers to try to work with them. Others who are input suppliers have worked to make sure they’ve supplied their customer base in a way that allows everyone access to some of those products, rather than sell all of their inventory to a company that may be storing it.”

At the same time, trade disruptions from the last several years have collided with the pandemic, exacerbating some of the challenges.

“We’re looking at some of the tariffs we have coming in that are raising costs on some of these products that we can only get from overseas,” Cullman said. 

COVID also added to growing shortages in the workforce through a combination of resignations and government support that made it possible for people to not work. During a series of roundtables last year, AFIA members said they were offering various incentives to retain and attract workers as well as moving to flexible work schedules, Cullman said.

“Flexibility has been the name of the game,” she said. “We’re seeing some that have changed start times and taken other procedures to reduce exposure. They’ve also instituted a lot of biosecurity measures to make sure workers stay healthy. The industry is doing all it can and we’re continuing to urge the administration to prioritize testing and some of the other COVID-19 resources for the industry.”

The AFIA will take a deeper dive this year to understand the overall picture of workforce challenges for members, Cullman said. 

“We’ll be seeing if there are some ways that we, as an organization, can facilitate some solutions to not having enough workers to get the job done,” she said. “We were already headed into a workforce shortage before COVID. We want to address some of those fundamentals as well as mitigate the effects of COVID.”

One positive outcome from the COVID pandemic was opening new opportunities for member advocacy with legislators, Cullman said. The AFIA was able to use digital technology to get more access. 

“We had members participate in some advocacy that we typically don’t see because they don’t come into Washington,” she said. “We found some real opportunities in being able to reach more people with more information.”

New administration

In addition to navigating through COVID, the association had to learn how to work with a new administration in the last year. A key focus for President Biden has been climate change, which has been integrated throughout all of the government agencies. 

“We have innovations that will allow us to be solution providers, whether that’s products that reduce emissions in ruminant animals or something that improves the health of animals,” Cullman said. “These innovations that are in the pipeline struggle to get to market because of the regulatory process. We’re looking to demonstrate the solutions we can provide if we have some help from the administration in getting the products to market.”

Cullman said there haven’t been any additional regulations come into play, outside of Occupational Safety and Health Administration viewing COVID as a workplace incident, which is atypical for viruses. There are a few things that haven’t happened yet that are impacting the feed industry more, she said. For one, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to address the ability to register feed ingredients with label claims. 

“We are behind Europe, Brazil and other places in the world,” she said. “We are one of the few places where manufacturers cannot make claims about the ingredients. Instead, FDA wants to go the drug route, which is very expensive and time consuming. It’s also not really appropriate for feed ingredients.”

The AFIA is talking with the FDA about the issue and industry partners are stressing the critical importance as a way to address climate change, reduce emissions from livestock facilities and improve animal health.

Cullman said the association is cautiously optimistic about future trade agreements, but the Trade Promotion Authority, which expired in July 2021, would have to be renewed before any formal talks could begin. 

“This past year was kind of an assess and wait for the administration on trade,” she said. “We’re hopeful as we move into 2022 that we’ll see more movement on that. But we’re not standing still. We’re actively working to promote the advantages of US feed and feed ingredients to others around the world.”

That includes Vietnam, which has a potential for growth in pet food and aquaculture due to its rising middle class.

“It’s just a growing market for a lot of higher value food products and it’s a relatively stable economy,” Cullman said. “Looking further down the road, some of the countries in Africa have strong potential.”

Proving sustainability 

The AFIA also was building its partnerships with other food and agriculture groups around the world. As part of the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021, the AFIA worked with other groups up and down the food supply chain to address issues of sustainability. 

“We got together and realized we had a lot in common when it came to sustainability,” she said. “We know the conversation is going to continue into the future.”

The AFIA is participating in coalitions that came out of the summit, including the Coalition for Sustainable Productivity Growth for Food Security and Resource Conservation (SPG) and AIM for Climate, and also is continuing forward working with other members of the food and ag supply chain. 

“In order to have a voice, we do have to be coordinated and we have to follow and track what is happening,” Cullman said. “This is a new effort and AFIA is trying to provide some organization to that. We’re going to be tracking the two coalitions that the US is leading (SPG and AIM for Climate) but we’ve also heard the administration talk about a US Food Systems initiative. There’s not been a lot of movement on it, but it’s out there.”

The only way such a system is going to be successful is if there is strong engagement and participation from the food system itself, she said. The goal is to ensure inclusion of innovation, access to diverse production systems and processing technologies, and evidence-based nutrition recommendations that recognize dietary diversity, and that those are prominently featured in any US and global strategies.

“We’re a little bit tired of certain food groups being vilified; that’s not productive but an attempt to find a silver bullet,” Cullman said. “You and I know that silver bullets don’t exist. The food system is complex, and we need to be able to use all the tools in the toolbox and provide diet diversity for folks.”

In addition, the AFIA is working with the Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER) on a sustainability roadmap and developing resources members can use on their own sustainability journeys, Cullman said. 

“There’s a lot more focus on feed as a major component of the supply chain for animal agriculture,” she said. “The sustainability profile of feed is critical for the animal protein sector being able to answer some of those questions. 

“We are also looking at how do we communicate better and link better up and down the supply chain to communicate the practices that result in a sustainable agricultural product. We think we’re at a pretty important part in the supply chain to facilitate that discussion.”

As the push for sustainable food options continues, plant-based protein is garnering more attention in the media and among consumers. Consumers are looking for variety in their diets, but so far buying trends have not changed significantly, Cullman said. 

“Demand for animal protein is high and will continue to remain high,” she said. “We saw this in early times with COVID where meat cases were empty. We are working to help consumers understand how meat fits sustainably and nutritionally in their diets so they can make informed choices.”