Yes, we know what you are thinking: “Oh no, not another preachy piece on coronavirus or COVID-19 or the Wuhan virus or whatever you wish to call it.” We don’t want to preach to anyone nor do we want to elaborate on the many things that we all have been told to do to minimize the chances of transmission and to protect ourselves from the novel coronavirus SARS-nCOV-2. This event has been a once-in-a-century event. We have seen nothing like it since the influenza epidemic that succeeded World War I and, if we are fortunate, we will not see it again in our lifetimes. But, as they say, never say never.
So, let’s step back and take a look at what we have seen and learned from this event and determine how we can upgrade our businesses and practices to be in a position to better address a future pandemic. The following is a list of actions that most food and ingredient processors, food handlers, warehouse operators, and restaurants may want to consider:
- Handwashing. Handwashing is emphasized again and again as one of the preventive measures for minimizing spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. This should not be a revelation for food processors and handlers, restaurant employees, and others. Handwashing is, and has been for many years, an integral element in a processor’s food safety program. The coronavirus simply adds another element to underscore its importance, so emphasize its importance in worker orientations and refresher sessions, and make sure that the handwash stations are all properly supplied with warm water, soap, sanitizer and a means to dry hands.
- Personal hygiene. This is another area that food processors and handlers already emphasize. This, too, has been one of the preventive measures emphasized for this coronavirus transmission. Processors should take a look at how their programs currently address personal hygiene and expand it if needed to include the elements that have been emphasized with virus control, e.g., do not touch your face, how to properly sneeze or cough, etc.
- Supplier diversity. There have been reports that some operations have had to stop or cut back on production due to a lack of key raw materials or ingredients. This would happen most often for those processors that practice “just-in-time” inventory management—those that bring in materials as needed for production and do not maintain large inventories. One of the issues that the COVID-19 outbreak has shown us is the importance of diversifying your suppliers. Processors should establish at least one and preferably two secondary suppliers for their raw materials and ingredients. And, they should patronize these secondary suppliers by ordering from them regularly. If there is an issue with the primary supplier, the working relationship can be expanded rather than starting from ground zero.
- Re-evaluate risk assessments. The Preventive Controls for Human Food regulation plus the ISO 22000 food safety standard and the Global Food Safety Initiative audit schemes all mandate that food processors, handlers, and any operation covered by the regulation, standard, or scheme conduct a risk assessment on ingredients, raw materials, packaging, and the processes. These assessments are supposed to include two elements: likelihood of occurrence and severity of occurrence. Consideration should be given to re-evaluating current risk assessments to determine whether they would be adequate to cover the coronavirus issues. One of the wineries that I know in my hometown buys glass from China and they were concerned that the bottles might be contaminated with the virus. They stepped back and looked at how wine bottles are manufactured (formed at high temperatures), handled, packaged, and shipped, and determined that there was no significant risk from the virus. Many materials would probably shake out the same way without major modifications to existing risk assessments.
- Sensitive persons. When you teach food safety, one of the important elements is establishing who will use a company’s products. Most foods, beverages, ingredients, and the packaging used for these items are sold to the general public. However, there are items that are manufactured for sensitive populations: the young, the old, pregnant women, and the immunocompromised (YOPI). Processors making such products take extra care when designing their food safety plans and making decisions regarding quality and safety. As has been seen with the coronavirus, the same acronym may be applied. The most sensitive group have been the elderly, especially those with pre-existing conditions who may have compromised their immune systems. These conditions include heart disease, respiratory concerns such as asthma, and diabetes. What has been kind of amazing and quite a relief is that this virus has really not impacted young children.
- Expand emergency planning. One of the elements of a company’s food safety plan is emergency planning. Processors and handlers have developed programs to address what to do in emergency situations such as hurricanes, tornadoes, power failures, floods, ammonia leaks, toxic chemical spills, and acts of bioterrorism, but few—if any—companies have a documented program for what to do in a pandemic. Given the current situation, many operations will be expanding their emergency planning programs to include this element. What has occurred over the past few weeks and each company’s experiences will help form the basis for such programs.
- Contingency planning for production. Contingency planning is usually included in the emergency planning program, but I think it would be good to break it out as a stand-alone program. Contingency programs are designed to fill a gap in production. For example: A company’s roof over the production floor collapses under heavy snow, effectively curtailing production. What should be done to meet orders while repairs are made? Many operations establish agreements with contract packers or sister companies to produce for them in such a situation. The last few weeks have underscored the importance of establishing contingency programs or reviewing current programs to determine whether they need to be upgraded.
- Testing. Testing for the virus has been a big issue here in the United States. What the brouhaha has shown is that many people simply don’t understand why testing is done. In 1990, Dr. Fred Shank of the United States Food and Drug Administration made the following statement: “Instead of relying on traditional inspections, our role in HACCP will be to review system parameters and operating procedures, to provide selective auditing of the system’s records, including verification by laboratory analysis, and provide for appropriate enforcement.” He emphasized that testing is a verification activity, not something done to ensure safety. One of the main reasons that HACCP was adopted was because scientists realized that food industry professionals had to build safety (and quality) into the manufacturing system. Most testing is done to solve problems and not to ensure safety, although many operations include finished product testing as a verification activity. One must realize that this kind of testing is not statistically significant. With this virus, the push has been to test to confirm or deny that someone who has symptoms has COVID-19. There are in excess of 300 million Americans; it would be impossible to test every one of them and, even if that was done, it could create a false sense of security because even after being tested a person could end up infected.
- Workforce education. All processors must establish programs to educate their workforce. These programs include orientations for all new employees, refresher sessions for current employees on a range of issues for food safety, sanitation, and worker safety, and job-specific education to ensure that people do their work properly and safely. Given the poor coverage of the outbreak by the media, who seem to think that their job is to frighten rather than inform, food processors, handlers, and warehouse operations should consider conducting emergency sessions for their own workforce that address emergency issues. Companies should bring their whole team together and make sure that everyone is on the same page and understands not only the problem, but the company’s planned response. The company should encourage questions, but take care in how it answers. If someone does not know an answer or is unsure how to respond, tell people, “We are not sure, but we will get back to you.” Don’t guess or theorize.
These are just a few thoughts on how you might make some good out of a bad situation.