Every industry in the world is waiting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect its functioning, and the food industry is no different. However, unlike the food industry, not every industry produces products considered essential for daily life. Food producers know that if one factory shuts down, there is a potential that a few people will go hungry, but if the entire sector is affected, it means the whole supply chain that provides food to Americans could be at risk.
To face the outbreak in a way that will protect its central role in U.S. infrastructure, the food production industry must implement careful plans based on science rather than conjecture and place the health and well-being of food-production workers first.
Food safety consulting organization The Acheson Group’s David Acheson, MD, CEO and president, Rolando González, PhD, VP of public health, and Benjamin Miller, PhD, senior regulatory and scientific affairs director, stressed via an email to Food Quality & Safety that the food industry will feel the COVID-19 outbreak most among its employees.
“Worker health and absenteeism present the largest risk to the supply chain in the U.S. as cases of illness continue to spread and increase,” they say. “Therefore, effective employee illness screening and management processes need to be instituted so that companies can continue to operate and minimize potential absenteeism that will affect production. If key companies in the supply chain close or are unable to operate, it may create disruptions downstream that ultimately impact the continuity or supply of food to consumers in some regions.”
The group highlighted related concerns as well: Grocery stores and other retailers in some cities or regions may be forced to close permanently or temporarily, or as is being done now, limit persons who are shopping at any given time. In cities and regions in which consumer access to groceries is already limited, this could create serious localized disruption. “Food companies and retail markets play a critical role in the U.S. supply chain and need to be prepared to deal with the coming increase in the number of illnesses nationally,” says The Acheson Group.
Some Good News
The good news for food safety is that current science suggests the virus that causes COVID-19 cannot be transmitted by food in ways that we think about typical foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella. However, this may not be applicable to food service, in which an ill worker might be able to transmit the virus to consumers via droplets on food or dishes and utensils.
The other good news is that China appears to have done a good job of managing the food supply to ensure that production continued and that food was available in grocery stores or could be delivered to people who were under quarantine, says The Acheson Group.
That approach is a good model to follow, particularly since China (as well as parts of Europe and the U.S.) presented a test case for what companies can expect. Drs. Acheson, González, and Miller say China has suffered shortages of cleaning and sanitizing products, toilet paper, and some non-perishable foods. Additionally, some food companies are reporting difficulty sourcing ingredients from overseas and difficulty in finding alternative suppliers. But, we must remember that China is a Totaletarian state; what the government says goes. This is not the case in the United States, the European Union, or in many other nations.
Food organizations need to carefully cull their information sources, Drs. Acheson, González, and Miller underline, leading with resources such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and state and local health departments for the most current information and recommendations regarding the outbreak in their area.
Employ a Robust Pandemic Policy
When it comes to keeping employees safe, the group underlines the role of quickly developed and employed pandemic policies, “not only to mitigate effects of COVID-19 disruptions on their businesses, but to ensure and protect employee and client health.” They offered the central pillars of such a policy as follows some of which should have been an integral part of worker orientations and refresher training sessions:
- Discourage workers from coming to work sick by modifying illness policies;
- Encourage remote work/telework options to draw as few personnel to offices as possible;
- Monitor all employees and visitors coming to offices or production sites, and ask about potential exposure;
- Ban all but critical business travel and ask employees whether they’ve travelled to risk areas and, if they have, request they remain home and self-monitor for 14 days;
- Stagger shifts by creating A and B shifts to reduce the number of workers on site at one time;
- Increase the frequency of cleaning common areas and document that the work was done, and setting plans to clean and sanitize workspaces of employees who may fall ill (making certain all Personal Protective Equipment required to do such cleaning/sanitizing is already available);
- Encourage delivery people to keep a distance of six feet from others;
- Ban all visitors to offices and production facilities; and
- Contact state and local health authorities for guidance before any member of the team falls ill.
Employees and customers need to be able to trust their organization is approaching this crisis with a plan and, for that reason, The Acheson Group stresses transparency around preparations for how a company will handle a confirmed case among their employees.
“Accessing and sharing accurate information during the outbreak is critical to ensure that the actions being taken are informed by science and minimize risk,” they say. “Companies should also be sharing best practices with each other throughout the supply chain. During a global outbreak, there’s no competitive advantage … and all of us need to work together to ensure that we protect each other, the public, and the integrity of the supply chain.”