With the end of 2022 upon us, data from the CDC showed that COVID-19 cases in the United States had been on the decline in recent months; however, cases are beginning to tick up over the past few weeks, which raises a question about the status of the pandemic: Is the pandemic (really) over?
Admittedly, many people in the U.S. have already returned to normal in their personal lives; few masks are seen in public these days and restaurant dining rooms are open. Supply chain concerns and personnel policy adjustments are still at the forefront of COVID-19 mitigation policies, but where does the food industry stand if another surge occurs? Are we better prepared than we were in March 2020? Are there new regulations or guidance to support risk mitigation? Will there be enforcement criteria going forward?
Nearly three years in, let’s look back at the food sector’s overall response and take a speculative peek into the future.
Before evaluating the food sectors’ efforts to protect both employee and food safety, let’s see where we stand. According to CDC’s data tracker, 2022 started with the highest number of COVID-19 cases ever recorded in the pandemic in the U.S., reaching more than 5,000,000 cases per week. As of November 28, 2022, the weekly case count sits at just upward of 305,000, up slightly from an October 2022 low mark of 265,000, a number that hasn’t been seen since June 2020.
But, before the celebrations begin, it’s important to note the slight uptick in cases recently amid reports of new variants that appear to have increased vaccine immunity evasiveness. It should also be noted that a similar low point occurred in June 2021, when U.S. case counts dropped to as low as 82,000 per week, only to spike to more than a million per week by August 2021.
In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 hit the meat and poultry industry hard. Workers in close proximity to each other in poorly ventilated chilly rooms offered the perfect conditions in which the virus could thrive and spread. With absenteeism high, some companies actually incentivized workers with cash bonuses to continue working even if they were ill, a practice that was eventually stopped to prevent further spread of the disease. There were clear indications that these conditions contributed to community spread events in situations where workers often shared transportation and even lived together. According to CDC’s newsletter Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, among 23 states reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in meat and poultry processing facilities, 16,233 cases in 239 facilities occurred, including 86 (0.5%) COVID-19–related deaths.
Guidance for Industry
The World Health Organization (WHO) published an early guidance document that offered initial steps the food industry should take as the pandemic exploded. This was a general document that was not country specific, but at least offered industry a starting point.
This was quickly followed by a guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on March 19, 2020, entitled “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19,” in which workers in the food and agriculture sector—agricultural production, food processing, distribution, retail and food service, and allied industries—were named as essential critical infrastructure workers (see “CISA Worker Risk Assessments,” below).
The agency’s National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) risk management framework, which has been in place since 2014, identifies 16 industry sectors as essential, including the food and agriculture sector, which is composed of an estimated 2.1 million farms, 935,000 restaurants, and more than 200,000 registered food manufacturing, processing, and storage facilities, accounting for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s economic activity. There are four other sectors applicable for food: water and wastewater, energy, transportation, and chemicals (pesticides). NIPP outlines the mitigation options for each sector using a matrix.