The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power Up: FDA says ‘the food supply in this country is safe’ despite empty grocery shelves

with Brent D. Griffiths

Good morning, friends and chag sameach 😊Tips, comments, John Prine lyrics? Reach out and sign up. Thanks for staying home and washing your hands. 

In the Agencies

A GOVERNMENT STAND AGAINST PANIC BUYING: Grocery stores are among the few businesses still allowed to open widely across the U.S. for people to patronize in-person — and they're swamped. As the shelves in many markets clear out of key staples and freezer items, the U.S. government is stepping up its efforts to ensure Americans can continue to buy food during the coronavirus pandemic safely and without panic. 

The Food and Drug Administration's Frank Yiannas spoke with Power Up on Tuesday to discuss the spike in demand for food in this country and how the agency is responding. 

  • “The American people should be rest assured that the food supply in this country is safe — both for people and for animals,” Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response, told us. 

Despite the socially-distanced lines snaking outside grocery stores so long they often wrap around street corners, there is actually no food shortage in the U.S., insists Yiannas, the former vice president of food safety for Walmart. “There are no widespread or nationwide shortages of food despite localized reports that you’re seeing.” 

  • Yiannas says he understands consumers' fears: “I know because I’ve had the same experience that other people are having — I’ve gone to my retail outlet and I’ve seen some empty shelves but by and large, in terms of some of the communication I’ve had with some of the nation’s largest food manufacturers and retailers, they are telling us that this is really an issue of unprecedented demand. Replenishment will occur.”
  • “It’s the equivalent of having seven Thanksgiving holidays, which is the busiest food holiday in America, back to back to back. They just weren’t expecting this artificial rush in demand so they will replenish. The supply chains are extremely resilient.”
  • Americans can help reduce the panic, he said: “There is no need to hoard,” Yiannas said, advising Americans to buy one or two weeks worth of groceries “and then leave some for others.”

A growing role for FDA: The FDA has been issuing guidelines about food safety and best practices to keep serving customers during the pandemic: They contain everything from ways to keep social distancing in retail and food production facilities, how to clean facilities to reduce the virus's spread, and what happens if a worker tests positive for covid-19. 

And Yiannas said he's frequently hearing a key question: “Should I be worried about food, in general and sometimes imported food?” 

  • The answer, on both fronts, is the same, he said: “There is no evidence the virus is transmitted through food.”  
  • “This is a respiratory illness,” he said, “which is different than the other types of illnesses that we are concerned about in food safety that are gastrointestinal illnesses.”

And those Clorox wipes you might have been obsessively using to disinfect your egg carton or can of lentil soup — you can probably save those. 

  • “In terms of the food packaging itself, it's very unlikely that the food packaging is going to be contaminated at a level that could be an indicator of transmission,” according to Yiannas. “If you feel so inclined, you can sanitize the exterior of the package and let it air dry but it’s not a practice I personally adhere to. I’m much more interested in hand washing and social distancing.”

The FDA is closely monitoring reports that at least four people who work in grocery stores have died in recent days. The Post's Abha Bhattarai reported earlier this week that the deaths led “to store closures and increasing anxiety among grocery workers as the pandemic intensifies across the country.” And several meat producing plants closed this week due to workers falling ill from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Yiannas says the agency has been working in close coordination with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect workers. “We put out guidance this weekend based on the [Centers for Disease Control's] positions on face coverings and have said it's perfectly fine for employees that work in food and beverage environments to wear face coverings,” said Yiannas.

  • If there is “widespread community transmission,” he added, the decision to potentially close a grocery store or production plant is a decision to be made at “a local level.”

But the guidance may not be enough to protect workers who interact with customers and other staff members throughout the day.  

  • “At a high risk of infection are the cashiers themselves, who stand just a few feet from hundreds of customers a day,” The Atlantic's Olga Khazan reported last month. “They might pick up the virus through food and money the customer touches. And ‘if the customer coughs or sneezes near an employee while in line, the likelihood of transmitting the virus through respiratory droplets is also high,’ says Brandon Brown, a professor at UC Riverside who has studied infectious diseases.”

Congress is concerned: Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter yesterday to the heads of the FDA and the CDC to “issue and promote clear guidance for workers in the retail food industry and their customers,” The Post's Tim Carman reports.

  • Markey writes that the guidance issued already “ultimately leaves decisions on the feasibility of worker protections to retail food establishments themselves … The limited existing guidance is failing our essential workers and consumers.”
  • Markey described to Tim a personal experience at a supermarket that fueled his concern: “There was a woman at the cash register. She was just working hard, but without any protection whatsoever. I felt that she was probably more exposed than almost anyone outside our medical community to hundreds of people a day, any one of which could have coronavirus.
  • “At the same time, she or her co-workers could transmit it back to the people who are coming through that checkpoint,” Markey continued. “I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all.’ ”

Front-line workers: Yiannas saluted the workers up and down the food supply chain as “heroes” and a lifeline for American consumers, as they continue to work throughout the crisis: 

  • “These men and women working on farms and food production and in facilities, warehouses, truckers, delivering foods in and out of cities to local retail producers — oftentimes these people aren’t thought about as front-line workers — they are,” Yiannas told us. 
  • And they are doing an amazing job each and every day to make sure Americans have access to safe food. 

The People

THE DEADLIEST DAY SO FAR: “The daily death toll from coronavirus in the United States surpassed 1,800 on Tuesday, marking a new global high for the number of deaths linked to the virus in one country in a single day,” Siobhán O'Grady and Teo Armus report.

  • Officials do see a cause for some hope: “Nationwide, one computer model of the disease’s future spread — relied upon by governors and the White House — shifted its estimate of covid-19’s U.S. death toll downward this week,” Brady Dennis, William Wan and David A. Fahrenthold report of some optimism that the United States may not realize the most dire projections.
On April 7, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, discussed the lack of health equity when it comes to the impact covid-19 may have on African Americans. (Video: Reuters)

THE VIRUS IS INFECTING BLACK AMERICANS DISPROPORTIONATELY: “A Washington Post analysis of available data and census demographics shows that counties that are majority-black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority,” Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran and Vanessa Williams report.

At The White House

MEADOWS TRIES TO MAKE HIS MARK: “One week into his tenure as [Trump’s] fourth chief of staff, Mark Meadows launched an overhaul of the West Wing’s communications operations,” Robert Costa, Ashley Parker and Anne Gearan report.

  • In the biggest move, Meadows installed a new White House press secretary: Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany's elevation along with the other additions reflect on how Trump is counting on Meadows “to sharpen his team’s political messaging as much of the White House remains consumed by the coronavirus pandemic," our colleagues write.
  • Still it remains unclear just how much juice the former congressman has: “Despite orchestrating the latest personnel shake-up, it remains unclear how much influence Meadows will ultimately have in Trump’s turbulent circle,” our colleagues write. “Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser, is widely viewed by advisers as a shadow chief of staff, while Vice President Pence and other officials help coordinate the administration’s response to the economic and health crises.”
As the coronavirus spread, incoming White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany initially downplayed the threat before touting the president’s response to it. (Video: The Washington Post)

MEET THE NEW PRESS SEC: “[McEnany is] a 31-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who carved out a high profile by clashing with cable news hosts and touting Trump’s record,” our colleagues write. A top Republican described her to our colleagues as a, “safe way to go” and pointed out that she is liked by Kushner. A resurfaced 2012 tweet shows McEnany sought to cast doubt on President Obama's birthplace — something Trump used to rejuvenate his political standing.

  • Other changes in the West Wing: Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah, who previously worked for Pence and Meadows, will become director of strategic communications. Ben Williamson, a senior aide to Meadows, will be senior adviser for communications. John Fleming, a top aide to Meadows and a former Republican congressman, will handle Meadows's new hotline for members of Congress that will operate outside of the legislative affairs team.

Stephanie Grisham is out after just nine months: She never held the regular press briefings that have long defined the position. “Grisham, a former campaign staffer who previously worked with Melania Trump, will return to the East Wing as chief of staff,” our colleagues write. According to the New York Times, McEnany isn't expected to hold any briefings soon either.

TRUMP AGAIN TARGETS INDEPENDENT OVERSIGHT: “Trump has removed the chairman of the federal panel Congress created to oversee his administration’s management of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package — the latest action by the president to undermine the system of independent oversight of the executive established after Watergate,” Ellen Nakashima reports

  • A pattern: “In just the past four days, [the president] has ousted two inspectors general and expressed displeasure with a third, a pattern that critics say is a direct assault on one of the pillars of good governance." 
  • Key quote: “What’s happened this week has been a total full-on assault on the IG system,” Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight told our colleague.

The latest target: Trump has chafed the prospect of having inspectors general who served in the Obama administration even though many – including Glenn Fine, who had been acting Pentagon inspector general – have served under administrations of both parties. Fine was leading the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, part of the oversight in the coronavirus stimulus that was subject to intense negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. 

Trump framed his decision to remove Fine as merely cleaning house: “We have a lot of IGs in from the Obama era,” Trump told reporters. “And as you know, it’s a presidential decision. And I left them, largely. I mean, changed some, but I left them … But when we have, you know, reports of bias and when we have different things coming in. I don’t know Fine. I don’t think I ever met Fine.”

  • Other targets: Last week, Trump ousted Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, who alerted Congress to a whistleblower complaint about Trump's actions regarding Ukraine that eventually sparked his impeachment. And Trump expressed displeasure with the Health and Human Services IG, whose office released a report on Monday that included critical comments from hospitals about the administration's coronavirus response. 

Those attacks are in contrast to the largely bipartisan support the IG-system has received for decades: The inspectors general were set up after Watergate and granted substantial investigative powers to help combat waste, fraud and abuse within the federal government to help assist Congress with its oversight, per the Congressional Research Service. More recent updates to the law have passed with broad bipartisan support.

  • One Republican senator is preparing to press Trump on Atkinson's firing: “Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) is working on a bipartisan letter addressed to President Donald Trump demanding an explanation for the firing of [Atkinson], according to aides in both parties,” Politico's Burgess Everett and Andrew Desiderio report.

The Campaign

“WE DECIDED TO RISK OUR LIVES TO COME VOTE”: "The drama in Wisconsin offered a preview of what could play out in upcoming primaries — and possibly in the November election — as the health crisis upends voting around the country,” Elise Viebeck, Amy Gardner, Dan Simmons and Jan M. Larson report of the first presidential primary this month amid a pandemic.

  • Jaw dropping quote: "We decided to risk our lives to come vote,” said Ellie Bradish Bradish, 40, told our colleagues of waiting in line in Milwaukee. “I feel like I’m voting for my neighbors, all the people who don’t have the luxury to wait this long.”

Patricia McKnight, a Journal Sentinel intern, shot this image of Milwaukee residents waiting in line:

The scene on the ground: “Across the state, in schools, churches and town halls, poll workers risked their health to make sure democracy worked. Members of the National Guard also pitched in,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bill Glauber, Molly Beck and Mary Spicuzza report.

  • In Milwaukee, only five polling stations were open: “Workers donned face masks and rubber gloves, handed out black pens to voters, wiped surfaces clean and kept the lines moving as best they could even as the state remained under a safer-at-home order,” the Journal Sentinel reports.

In the Media


Acting Navy secretary resigns: “Thomas Modly resigned after drawing condemnation for insulting the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier who was fired for writing a letter of concern about the service’s handling of a coronavirus outbreak aboard his vessel,” Dan Lamothe, Paul Sonne and Seung Min Kim report.

  • Modly apologized again for his speech to the USS Roosevelt crew after calling Capt. Brett Crozier “stupid: “You are justified in being angry with me about that,” he wrote in a memo. “There is no excuse, but perhaps a glimpse of understanding, and hopefully empathy.” Modly added that the crew “deserved a lot more empathy and a lot less lecturing.”
  • The drama comes at a particularly bad time: “There is never a good time for a crisis in leadership, but having it in the middle of a pandemic is a particularly awful time,” Ray Mabus, who served as Navy secretary under President Obama told Politico's Lara Seligman.
Fallout continues after Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved on April 2 after a letter he wrote to his superiors was published by the San Francisco Chronicle. (Video: The Washington Post)

Boris Johnson remains in the ICU: "According to the latest update on Tuesday evening, he was ‘stable’ and ‘in good spirits,’ but being closely monitored," the BBC's Victoria King reports.

Congressional leaders and administration officials put politics aside in private: “For all the public signs of discord, communications and coordination between congressional leaders and the Trump administration have hummed along, compensating for the dysfunctional relationship — or the outright lack of one — between Trump himself and the top two Democrats on Capitol Hill,” Seung Min Kim reports.

Continuing struggles with coronavirus testing: “The United States is now testing nearly 700,000 people each week for the coronavirus. But that’s not enough to catch every case of the disease or to provide the kind of data needed to lift social distancing measures and allow people to go back to work. And because testing capacity remains inadequate, it’s unclear when we’ll get there,” Politico's David Lim reports.


REMEMBERING JOHN PRINE: “John Prine was a raspy-voiced heartland troubadour who wrote and performed songs about faded hopes, failing marriages, flies in the kitchen and the desperation of people just getting by. He was, as one of his songs put it, the bard of ‘broken hearts and dirty windows,’” Matt Schudel reports of the legendary musician who died in Nashville on Tuesday of complications of the coronavirus. He was 73.

  • Prine heavily influenced a younger generation of singer-songwriters: “The closest thing I could imagine to ever being around Mark Twain,” the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach called him.