“I’m only a few generations off an Alabama farm,” noted Julie Anna Potts, by way of explaining how she happens to lead the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a trade association that represents the largest meat processors in the United States, as well as a smaller number of medium and small meat processors, some poultry processors, and others in the industry. (She added that many meat and poultry processors belong to several industry groups, the idea being to benefit from all the groups have to offer.)

“My grandmother grew up on a farm there. And my husband grew up on a farm in Northwest Louisiana that his brother now runs.”

But Potts is a veteran when it comes to agriculture public policy. A lawyer by trade, she served in the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) as its executive vice president and treasurer, and before that, general counsel.

Following her tenure at AFBF, she became chief counsel of the Senate Agriculture Committee, under then-Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Earlier, she got her public policy chops as an associate in several environmental law groups in large Washington, DC, law firms and clerked for US Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola for the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

There are more ties to agriculture and meat processing. Potts is a Penn State University trustee and serves on the boards of Agriculture Future of America, the International Stockmen’s Educational Foundation, and the International Meat Secretariat.

A little over two years ago, Potts was appointed to USDA’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee.

Which brings us to her determination to advance the priorities of the meat and poultry processing industry, in early 2023.

Pressing matters

A top priority for her, NAMI and others in the industry is Protein PACT and its vision for the meat and poultry industry over the next few years. Also of great importance to Potts is what she is hearing from NAMI members about their priorities for 2023 and years beyond. What’s more, the Institute has a great interest in top-level politics at a national level, and how political polarization affects the meat and poultry industry now, as well as into the future.

The Protein PACT is a joint effort between NAMI and its partners to accelerate the entire animal protein sector’s progress toward global sustainable development goals for healthy people, animals, communities, and the environment. It involves packers and processors who belong to NAMI, industry allies, processors across the industry, suppliers, and academics.

“Protein PACT includes five basic areas that the meat and poultry industry is involved in: the environment, food safety, animal welfare, health and wellness, and labor and human rights.” Potts said. The pact is an agreement that NAMI and the industry have made to improve what we do for consumers, for example,” Potts explained.

“The main goal of Protein PACT is to help the meat and poultry industry make improvements in these five different areas. Another goal is for packers and processors to connect even more with the economy and consumers,” she said.

The Protein PACT framework includes issues like sustainability – the environmental impact of protein production. Other areas of focus include food safety, which has long been the top priority of the meat and poultry industry; worker safety; animal health; and human health and nutrition.

“We didn’t have the metrics or measurements before this that would enable the industry to deal well with these issues, but using Protein PACT, which we’ve developed, we now do,” Potts said. She sees it as an industry commitment from partners across animal protein as the largest-ever effort to strengthen animal protein’s contributions to healthy people, healthy animals, healthy communities, and a healthy environment.

“In these five areas of importance to the industry, we’ve identified 92 metrics or measurements that industry has been collecting and submitting to our database. So, what we’re doing is creating an industry ‘report card.’ Some people want to know about carbon footprints, for example, and how that affects industry operations. That will be part of it.”

“We started this data collection process last summer (2022). The first report on progress was released this past fall. But the project really dates to the summer of 2019, and it promises to be a massive, 10-year effort. We set goals. And I can say that Protein PACT is not something NAMI leaders just thought up, but it has been driven by our NAMI membership.

“Part of the reason for the project is to do a better job of telling consumers the truth about the meat and poultry industry, how it operates in a sustainable and responsible way, as opposed to the negative story that has long been portrayed about the industry,” Potts said.

Many people in the industry believe it is a story circulated by people and organizations who are working to end animal agriculture. “For example, we’ve reduced workplace injuries vastly. And any food safety issue is one too many. But that story never seems to be told in the media,” she pointed out.

“To tell our story, we’re focusing also in areas outside of national media, on social media and other platforms. I have three kids – two 19-year-old girls and a 16-year-old boy. My one 19-year-old loves to cook and eat. And she gets her news from TikTok, not the evening news. So, we need to tell the meat industry story on other platforms.”

Stakeholder requests

Priorities NAMI members have asked the association to work on in 2023 and beyond include labor and trade.

“Labor is the biggest challenge our members and other processors face, and that was true even before the pandemic,” she said. “I started working at NAMI in 2018, and the first thing I did was visit many plants.

“I realized we had a very low unemployment rate in the US. If we can’t find local workers to work in our plants, then they must come from elsewhere. We need to expand visa programs beyond production agriculture, to packing and processing. If not, the only other alternative is automation and new technology. There is a shortage of workers in all of agriculture. But I’m hopeful, with changes, that we can get more workers into our plants,” she said. “We’re not in this alone. We need the cattlemen, other meat and poultry trade associations, to help solve this problem. Because last year, the industry produced more meat and poultry than ever.”

Trade is another big issue for her members. There needs to be a return to negotiated free trade agreements in agriculture and ag industries. “We’d like to see UK, African, Vietnam tariff protection.”

“The supply chain – we need to get our seaports working again, like they used to. There is an ongoing effort to acquire CO2 supply, which is lacking, for stunning and chilling animals. What can we do to achieve that supply?”

“Proposition 12, an effort to ban the sale of veal, eggs, or pork by imposing California animal care regulations in every state in the US, will hurt the industry everywhere, and will hurt all consumers. Our members are waiting for a Supreme Court decision on this issue. You can’t impose regulations city by city or state by state all across the country, based on what one state – California – enacts,” she explained.

Political headwinds

Potts is also greatly concerned about the turn that national politics has taken, and its effect on the meat and poultry industry.

“When you politicize food, that is a loser for everyone,” she said. “Our industry, consumers, farmers, ranchers, all lose out.” She thinks that some of the discussions about meat and poultry policy issues have sunk into highly partisan debates.

“Traditionally, especially in food safety, between career people at FSIS and processors, there was no politics. Food safety has always been our number one, number two, number three issue. That’s the culture in meat and poultry production and processing, and that is how it always has been. But when you start focusing the attention on the supply chain, empty store shelves, you get into partisan discussions. Then everyone loses – both upstream and downstream.”

Potts is hopeful things will return to how they used to be. “Coming from the Senate Agriculture Committee, we worked hand in hand to be agreeable. There was collaboration between members of the Democratic and Republican parties. Today, I think that has changed. Not because of disagreement over food and agriculture policy, but because of things like, ‘I win, you lose.’”

“I think the industry enjoys a good working relationship with USDA-FSIS. We can have a dialogue with Jose Emilio Esteban, the new Under Secretary for Food Safety, who came from inside the agency, when there are issues to discuss,” she said.

“We work together under the requirements set by the Meat and Poultry Inspection acts. Right now, there is a big push to work on the Salmonella issue, and we (the industry) and the government are working diligently.

“We just want to have a productive, open dialogue. Someone like Alexis Taylor, Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, for example, is very good to work with,” Potts said.

In any case, she is extremely optimistic about the meat and poultry industry.

“I’m very bullish on our industry. I have great confidence and am very proud of our industry. The project that we are working on, with all phases of agriculture, not just meat and poultry – is a great undertaking. And I’m very proud of what we’re doing.”