Federal spokespersons from USDA and FDA updated the fresh produce industry on changes and challenges to day-to-day operations during the COVID-19 pandemic in a virtual town hall meeting held April 1, 2020. Sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), the online meeting addressed a range of issues such as alterations to regulations on inspections and onsite audits, transitioning from food service to retail, and assurance that the food chain remains strong and safe during the pandemic.
Greg Ibach, USDA undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, said the agency is making adjustments as needed. Among these is extending audit certification for 60 days for certifications of good agricultural practices (GAPs) due to expire between now and May 2020 to permit bringing up new GAP certification for new customers. In addition, UDSA is offering states flexibility in adopting some proposed adjustments to the Specialty Crop Block Grants Program. He encouraged members to reach out to their state departments of agriculture to determine how these adjustments might assist the fruit and vegetable industry.
Leeanne Jackson, co-chair of the Food and Agriculture Sector Coordinating Council at FDA, said that most domestic and foreign inspections of farms and facilities have been temporarily postponed, with some exceptions. Domestic onsite inspections may be conducted in “for-cause” scenarios that may pose an immediate public health threat. Inspections states conduct under FDA contract will follow similar measures, but states have jurisdiction over inspections they conduct not contracted under FDA. In this case, Jackson emphasized that FDA expects states to use the same mission critical criteria for these inspections. Routine onsite surveillance inspections by state inspectors or FDA investigators will not be reinstated until the crisis has passed, she said.
For imported foods, inspections outside what is deemed mission critical will be made on a case-by-case basis and other tools will be employed, such as inspections of ports of entry along with use of a risk-based tool for screening and sampling.
Off-site audit requirements for supplier verification under the Food Safety Modernization Act to confirm compliance with food safety standards are also temporarily halted, said Jackson, with facilities expected to select alternative ways to verify compliance such as sampling and testing of food safety records review.
Transitioning From Food Service to Retail
For businesses transitioning from food service to retail, Ibach said that USDA has the ability to make adjustments for greater flexibility within the current laws to help with this transition. He, along with Bruce Summers, administrator for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, urged produce businesses to let them know what specific challenges they are facing so they can help pinpoint solutions. Summers provided an example of solutions offered for the egg industry due to the tremendous increased demand for eggs at retail stores. Federal grading restrictions were altered to allow eggs destined for food service to be returned to plants for repackaging for retail.
No Disruption to the Food Supply Chain
Overall, the message from FDA and USDA leaders remained clear: The food supply chain is safe and strong and federal agencies are adapting and staying flexible to ensure fresh produce and other food industries can meet the challenges to their daily operations.