Tag Archives: social distancing

Checklist

2020 FSC Episode 3 Wrap Up: Does Your Company Have a COVID Czar?

By Maria Fontanazza
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Checklist

Navigating the murky waters that COVID-19 presents has been no easy task for food companies. Being part of America’s critical infrastructure has meant that adapting to the pandemic has been unavoidable, and the industry has directly taken on the challenges to ensure the nation has a reliable food supply. But what about the frontline workers, their safety and how this ties into operational continuity as a whole? During last week’s episode of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, an expert panel discussed the practices that food companies have put in place during the pandemic and offered advice on managing the entire scope of COVID-19 challenges including screening employees and preventing infection transmission, safeguarding workers and the facility, administrative and engineering controls, education and training, and risk management.

“No doubt that it is a concert of controls and interventions that have allowed our industry to effectively combat this over the past several months,” said Sanjay Gummalla, senior vice president of scientific affairs at the American Frozen Foods Institute. “By and large, the industry has taken charge of this situation in a way that could not have been predicted.” Gummalla was joined by Trish Wester, founder of the Association for Food Safety Auditing Professionals and Melanie Neumann, executive vice president and general counsel for Matrix Sciences International.

First up, the COVID Czar—what is it and does your company have one? According to Neumann, this is a designated person, located both within a production facility as well as at the corporate location, who manages the bulk of the requirements and precautions that companies should be undertaking to address the pandemic. “We’re not trained in people safety—we’re trained in food safety,” said Neumann. “And it’s a lot to ask, especially on top of having to manage food safety.”

Some of the takeaways during the discussion include:

  • Administrative controls that must be managed: Appropriate cleaning, disinfection and sanitation; PPE; employee hygiene; shift management; and surveillance mechanisms
  • PPE: “It’s really clear now that face masks and coverings are critical in managing source control—it prevents the spread and protects other employees,” said Gummalla. “All employees wearing masks present the highest level of protection.” When the attendees were polled about whether face coverings are mandatory where they work, 91% answered ‘yes’.
  • Engineering controls within facility: Physical distancing measures such as plexiglass barriers, six-foot distance markings, traffic movement, limited employees, and hand sanitizer stations. “Engineering controls in a facility involve isolation from the virus,” said Gummalla. “In this case, controlling [and] reducing the exposure to the virus without relying on specific worker behavior. This is where facilities have implemented a great amount of thoughtful intervention, probably at a high capital cost as well.” Companies should also consider airflow management, which can involving bringing in an outside professional with expertise in negative and positive air pressure, advised Wester.
  • Verification activities and enterprise risk management: Neumann emphasized the importance of documentation as well as advising companies to apply a maturity model (similar to a food safety culture maturity model) to a COVID control program. The goal is to ensure that employees are following certain behaviors when no one is watching. “We want to be able to go from ‘told’ to ‘habit’,” she said.
  • Education and training: Using posters, infographics, brochures and videos, all of which are multilingual, to help emphasize that responsibility lies with every employee. “It is important to recognize the transmission is predominately is person to person,” said Gummalla. Do you have a daily huddle? Neumann suggests having a regular dialogue with employees about COVID.
  • The future, 2021 and beyond: Does your company have a contingency, preparedness or recovery plan? “The next six months are going to be critical; in many parts of the world, the worse is not over yet,” said Gummalla. “There will be a lot more innovation in our industry, and communication will be at the heart of all of this.”

Get access to the presentations and points discussed during this exclusive session by registering for the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Conference Virtual Series. Attendees will have also access to upcoming sessions as well as the recordings of all sessions.

OSHA

OSHA Fines Smithfield Foods, JBS for Failing to Protect Workers from COVID-19

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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OSHA

Last week OSHA cited Smithfield Packaged Meats in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for failing to protect its workers from COVID-19 exposure. The federal agency issued a fine of $13,494 and cited a violation of failing to provide a violation-free environment following an inspection. More than 1200 workers for Smithfield Foods have contracted COVID-19 and four have died since April. The company, which produces 5% of the nation’s pork, has been under investigation since the early spring for its workplace conditions and the large coronavirus outbreak among employees. It has continued to defend itself against “misinformation”, with President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan going as far as submitting a letter to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker at the end of June. Smithfield has 15 business days to pay the fine or contest the citation—and the company will reportedly contest the fine, as a company spokesperson called it “wholly without merit”.

During the September 17 Episode of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, experts will discuss COVID-19, worker safety and managing quality in the new normal | Register NowOSHA also slapped meat packer JBS with a proposed fine of $15,615, also for a “violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm”. Nearly 300 workers have reportedly contracted COVID-19, and seven employees died. JBS also has 15 days to comply with or contest the fine, which a company spokesperson said is “entirely without merit” and that OSHA was trying to enforce a standard not even in existence in March.

“Contrary to the allegations in the citation, the Greeley facility is in full compliance with all recommended guidance and hazard abatements. The facility has been audited and reviewed by multiple health professionals and government experts, including the CDC, local and state health departments, third-party epidemiologists, and the Department of Labor, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, who twice visited the plant during the citation period, and issued favorable reports on April 20 and May 8,” according to a statement by a JBS spokesperson. “The Greeley facility has only had 14 confirmed positives in the past three and half months, representing 0.4% of our Greeley workforce, despite an ongoing community outbreak. The facility has not had a positive case in nearly seven weeks, despite more than 1,730 positives in the county and more than 33,300 positive cases in the state during the same time period.”

Meanwhile Kim Cordova, president of the union that represents JBS workers, stated that the company penalty is simply a drop in the bucket and not severe enough. “A $15,000 ‘penalty’ from OSHA is nothing to a large company like JBS. In fact, it only incentivizes the company to continue endangering its employees. The government has officially failed our members, the more than 3,000 workers at JBS Greeley, who have protected the food supply chain while our communities quarantined during the pandemic. It is immoral and unethical, but in the current Administration, unfortunately not illegal, that OSHA waited seven months to investigate the unsafe working conditions that led to this deadly outbreak. Because of this failure, JBS Greeley is the site of the most meat processing plant worker deaths in the nation due to Covid-19.”

FDA

FDA on COVID-19 Food Safety Checklist: This is Not a Regulatory Requirement or Enforcement Tool

By Maria Fontanazza
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FDA

In mid-August, FDA and OSHA released a checklist to help food companies that were going through operational changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the “Employee Health and Food Safety Checklist for Human and Animal Food Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic” document reviews employee health and social distancing (how to deal with employee exposure and testing, the arrangement of work environments, especially considering work breaks and close operations), and food safety and HACCP plans—including suppliers and incoming ingredients—cGMPs, and other operational alterations due to COVID-19.

Today FDA held an “FDA COVID-19 Update for Food Operations Stakeholders” in collaboration with CDC and OSHA to further discuss the checklist, which targets owners, operators or agents in charge of a food operation. The purpose is to help the user assess operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly operations that have restarted after a facility shutdown. Following the initial remarks, it was clear the FDA wanted to emphasize that the food safety checklist is intended to serve as a resource document, not a new guidance document or a new regulation. What was originally envisioned to be a one- to two-page checklist became a 16-page checklist that should be used in conjunction with additional information provided by FDA, CDC and OSHA, said Jenny Scott, senior advisor, office of food safety at CFSAN.

Scott reviewed the outline of the checklist, touching on employee health practices to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 (from basic handwashing practices to deadline with sick and exposed workers), employee testing and potential changes related to personnel requirements (i.e., if you are putting new people into new roles, you must consider whether more training is required), and the cGMP requirements. Among the key questions related to sanitation that Scott advised one must ask include: Are necessary cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting supplies available? Are changes needed for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting procedures for certain areas or the frequency of conducting the procedures? Do the changes result in the need for updating instructions or training workers?

As the understanding of COVID-19 and how it spreads is evolving, Scott stressed that industry should frequently check FDA, CDC and OSHA websites for updates.

(Noteworthy link from CDC: Testing Strategy for Coronavirus (COVID‐19) in High‐Density Critical Infrastructure Workplaces after a COVID‐19 Case is Identified)

Update on FDA Inspections

Michael Rogers, assistant commissioner for human and animal food operations, ORA, FDA also stressed the fact that the food safety checklist is not a new regulatory requirement, commenting that there has been “some anxiety associated” with this misperception. “This is simply an educational tool,” Rogers said. “We recognize that every firm is different, and the checklist should be information to consider…This is not an enforcement tool.” He added that the FDA’s approach during inspections will be collaborative and that the agency will not be holding firms to the specifics of the checklist. During the pandemic, the agency has been conducting mission critical inspections. FDA has also started domestic inspections in certain areas and will be preannouncing inspections as it moves forward, and it continues to assess the situation abroad to determine when foreign inspections can resume.

Pratik Soni, Omnichain
Retail Food Safety Forum

Top Three Visibility Challenges in Today’s Food Supply Chain

By Pratik Soni
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Pratik Soni, Omnichain

To say that COVID-19 has been disruptive would be putting it mildly. The pandemic’s sudden and seismic impact has brought major upheaval across industries—the food industry and its supply chain included.

There was the initial panic buying that drove upticks in consumer demand for which few manufacturers and grocers were prepared, resulting in widespread product shortages. With restaurants closed, distributors and suppliers were left with considerable excess inventory—most of which ended up as waste and losses. Inside production sites and plants, many had to try and maintain their output with a reduced workforce, even as demand continued to climb. Meanwhile, some plants unfortunately have had to shut down operations on account of employees testing positive for COVID-19.

In the time since the outbreak, the food supply chain has stabilized to an extent. Store shelves are continuously being replenished with products. Restaurants have started reopening with new health and safety measures. Yet even as the industry takes gradual steps toward recovery, the underlying problem that led to the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact persists: Lack of visibility. There was lack of visibility into supply and demand and what was happening upstream and downstream across the supply chain, which prevented timely, proactive action to optimize operations in face of disruption.

Looking ahead, participants across the food supply chain will need enhanced end-to-end visibility so that they can work together to get ahead of the curve. As part of gaining this visibility, they will need the transparent exchange of information and cohesive collaboration to adapt especially as the food industry continues to see shifts in consumer behavior and the marketplace in the wake of COVID-19—particularly in the following three key areas.

Food Distribution

While food producers have been working tirelessly to keep grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens well stocked, there continues to be fluctuating availability on certain products, such as eggs, dairy, poultry and meat. This has led distributors and suppliers to increase their prices when selling these goods to stores and restaurants, who have had to then pass the additional costs on to consumers through their own price increases and surcharges, respectively. One report from CoBank, a cooperative bank part of the Farm Credit System, notes there could be as much as a 20% increase in the price of pork and beef this year due to supply issues.1 Many grocers have also implemented purchase limitations on consumers to combat shortages.

These downstream implications stem largely to uncertainty in the supply chain, with stores and restaurants unsure about available supply upstream and when they can expect to receive shipments. But if there was clearer visibility and transparency between production, distribution, transportation, food service and retail, then all parties could better anticipate and plan for supply shortages or delays. For instance, if a meat processing plant has to temporarily close due to cases of COVID-19, they can immediately communicate to the rest of the supply chain so that parties downstream can readily find alternative sources and minimize any necessary price inflations or other implications to consumers.

Consumer Demand

Even with the reopening of restaurants, people will likely choose to cook more of their meals at home. It was a trend that began with restaurant closures and will continue for the foreseeable future as consumers remain cautious of dining out. While this may bring tough times ahead for the food service industry, the grocery sector is seeing a huge lift in business. Research from restaurant management platform Crunchtime shows that, towards the end of June, restaurants were only seeing 64.5% of their pre-COVID-19 sales levels.2 At the same time, a study by Brick Meets Click and Mercatus reveals U.S. online grocery sales reached a record $7.2 billion in June, up nearly 10% over May.3

For food companies and brands, growth in the grocery sector has presented a challenge in the way of demand planning and forecasting. I’ve personally spoken with several company executives who have seen significant upticks in orders from their grocery channel partners—an increase for which they didn’t forecast—and are now struggling to adjust production levels accordingly to avoid the risk of excess production that would lead to unnecessary costs, wastes and losses. In such instances, real-time visibility into transactional activity and stock levels at the retail level would help production planners improve the accuracy of their forecasts and enable them to think steps ahead before orders come in and thereby optimally balance supply with demand. Stores would remain well stocked and the supply chain could flow in a more efficient and profitable way for all participants.

Food Handling

Without question, public health is the number one priority right now. Participants at each point in the food supply chain today need to communicate with each other, as well as to consumers, that they’re following best practices for social distancing, disinfecting and other precautions. It’s not to prevent the possible transfer of the virus via actual products, as the FDA notes there is currently no evidence of transmission through food or packaging. But rather, it’s to build greater confidence in the food supply chain—that everyone is doing their part to support individual and collective health and safety, which in turn prevents possible facility closures or other case-related bottlenecks that would inhibit consistent supply to the market.

There also has to be confidence that, amid these countermeasures for COVID-19, companies are still upholding their commitments to food safety, integrity and proper handling. What can support that confidence is data—shared data from every point in a product’s journey from source to shelf. The data should be transparent and available to all supply chain participants as well as immutable so that it is tamperproof and fully traceable should there be any problem, such as mislabeling or a foodborne illness. The data ultimately holds everyone accountable for their role in ensuring a safe food supply chain.

To achieve the level of visibility outlined above, the food industry will have to break away from legacy processes involving the siloed management of operational systems and databases. Instead, the disruption seen during COVID-19 and ongoing shifts in the marketplace should encourage companies to consider digital transformation and technologies that can enable a more cohesive and nimble food supply chain. These are technologies like blockchain, which provides a decentralized, distributed ledger to publish and share data in real time. Moreover, artificial intelligence that can leverage incoming real-time data to guide next-best actions, even when the unexpected occurs. Personally, I always return to the notion that the supply chain is a team sport. You need visibility to know what each team member is doing on the field and how to align everyone on a gameplay. The digital solutions available today offer that visibility and insight, as well as the agility to pivot as needed to obstacles along the journey from source to shelf.

References

  1. Taylor, K. (May 6, 2020). “The American meat shortage is pushing prices to unprecedented heights — here’s how it could affect your grocery bill.” Business Insider.
  2. Maze, J. (July 7, 2020). “As the coronavirus resurges, restaurant sales start slowing again.” Restaurant Business.
  3. Perez, S. (July 6, 2020). “US online grocery sales hit record $7.2 billion in June.” TechCrunch.
Coronavirus, COVID-19

Meatpacking Workers Sue OSHA Over Hazardous Working Conditions During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Coronavirus, COVID-19

View the complimentary webinar, “Instant Replay & Update: Is Your Plant COVID-19 Safe?”A lawsuit filed yesterday against OSHA alleges that the agency did not protect meat packing plant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Three workers from Pennsylvania-based Maid-Rite Specialty Foods are suing OSHA for putting workers in “imminent danger” as a result of hazardous working conditions, according to The Washington Post. The lawsuit stated that Maid-Rite did not:

  • Implement social distancing measures on the processing lines
  • Provide acceptable personal protective equipment
  • Address sick workers safely by not separating them
  • Tell all workers who may have been in close contact with sick workers

Maid Rite is also accused of incentivizing sick employees to report to work with bonuses.

Both OSHA and Maid Rite have not yet commented on the lawsuit as of yet.

For months, COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and poultry processing plants have been a problem, with more than 11,000 infections being reported.

During the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, experts will address The Intersection of OSHA and Food Safety Personnel during the episode, COVID-19’s Impact on Food Safety Management. This session will occur on Thursday, November 12. Learn more.

Jason Chester, InfinityQS
FST Soapbox

Digital Revolution: Empowering the Remote Workforce and Resilience Post-COVID-19

By Jason Chester
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Jason Chester, InfinityQS

Around the world, countries are beginning to take tentative steps toward a return to normalcy following months of stay-at-home mandates and other restrictions in light of COVID-19. Slowly, we’re starting to see employees return to their offices, retail stores open their doors, and restaurants welcome back patrons. However, many will find themselves in a world dramatically different from the one they left before quarantine.

Namely, on top of social distancing and disinfection measures to control further spread of the virus, entire industries are re-examining their legacy processes and systems—especially ones that presented operational challenges at the pandemic’s outbreak—the food manufacturing industry included.

In truth, food manufacturers have gone to great lengths to maintain productivity and output to meet demand throughout the pandemic. But they have done so in the face of unprecedented circumstances, with many plants operating with limited workforces and key employees like quality professionals and plant managers shifted to remote work. Lacking connectivity between those on the plant floor and at home due to long-held manual processes, a growing number of manufacturers must now take a hard look at their quality and safety programs and embrace digital tools.

A Wake-Up Call for Digital Transformation

Most technological investments in food manufacturing over the past several decades have centered on electro-mechanical automation designed to scale up the physical production process. Fewer investments, however, have been made on the equally important data-driven, decision-making process necessary for ensuring optimal performance, food quality and safety.

Even in the most heavily automated plants, it’s not uncommon to find manufacturers managing quality through manually updated spreadsheets, which are often only reviewed after the fact, when it’s too late for remedial correction. There are unfortunately also those who still rely on paper checklists, making it practically impossible to take proactive action on collected process data—much less get the information in front of remote quality professionals and managers. Meanwhile, others have gone as far as adopting software solutions for quality data management and process control, but these tend to be on-premises systems that employees can’t access outside of the four walls of the plant.

We have also seen many examples where, due to workforce restrictions and availability, employees from other parts of the manufacturing business (e.g., R&D, IT, and back-office teams) have been brought in to perform plant-floor activities like quality and food safety checks. The goal has been to prevent impediments to production output, just when demand has increased substantially. But ensuring that these employees perform the checks on time and in the correct way—with little time for training or coaching—has left many plant leaders in a precarious position.

The challenges seen with these capabilities and enabling geographically dispersed teams to work together through the pandemic have been a wake-up call of sorts for digital transformation. Manufacturers are coming to the realization that they’ll need data accessibility, actionability and adaptability along the road to recovery and in the post-COVID-19 world. And with social distancing and other workplace precautions expected to continue for the foreseeable future, the imperative is all the more urgent.

The Solution Lies in the Cloud

To digitally transform quality and safety programs today, food manufacturers should prioritize investment in the cloud. Notably, cloud-based quality management systems offer a way to standardize and centralize critical process information, as well as tools to empower employees at all levels of the enterprise.

For plant-floor operators struggling to keep up on account of reduced workforce sizes, such solutions can automate routine yet important activities for quality assurance, including data collection, process monitoring and reporting. If a team member needs to cover a different shift or unfamiliar task, role-based dashboards can help them to see required actions, while process workflows can provide guidance to ensure proper steps are taken even with a limited workforce. Further, automated alerts can provide timely notifications of any issues—whether it be a missed data collection or an actual food quality or safety concern present in the data.

Perhaps most importantly during the pandemic and for the post-COVID-19 world, the cloud makes critical quality data instantly and easily accessible from anywhere, at any time. Quality professionals, plant managers, and other decision-makers can continue to monitor and analyze real-time process data, as well as observe performance trends to prevent issues from escalating—all safely from home.

The scalability of cloud-based solutions also streamlines deployment so organizations can rapidly implement and standardize on a single system across multiple lines and sites. In doing so, it becomes possible to run cross-plant analyses to identify opportunities for widescale process improvement and align best practices for optimal quality control at all sites. This ability to understand what’s happening in production—through real-time data—to enact agile, real-world change is a hallmark of successful digital transformation.

An Investment for Whatever the Future Holds

Ultimately, investments in secure cloud-based quality management and the broader digital transformation of manufacturing operations are investments in not only perseverance during the pandemic, but also resilience for the future. Food producers and manufacturers who can readily access and make informed decisions from their data will be the ones best equipped to pivot and adjust operations in times of disruption and uncertainty. And while it’s unclear what the future holds for the world, the food industry, and COVID-19, it’s safe to say we likely won’t see a full return to normalcy but the emergence of a new—and in many ways better—normal, born out of digital solutions and smarter ways of thinking about quality data collection and monitoring.

Retail Food Safety Forum

The New Normal for Grocery Store Health and Safety

By Todd Frantz
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Grocery stores have become some of the most important retail establishments over the past few months. They’ve kept people fed and provided access to essential supplies such as toilet paper, cleaning agents and over-the-counter medications. Grocery retailers have taken extraordinary steps to help protect the health and safety of their workers and customers during the worldwide pandemic, understanding that viruses can spread quickly with high customer traffic.

While many grocery stores made operational changes to stay open during this time, more adjustments are needed to help stem future infections. Guest occupancy limits, face-covering recommendations and single-directional aisles are here to stay, at least for the near term. Customers are likely to continue online shopping, which has its own set of challenges for food and delivery safety. It will be critical for retailers to obtain reliable information, specific to the store’s location and to follow local, state and federal mitigation guidelines. Trusted sources of such information include the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO), plus state and local health departments.

Grocery retailers should also consider how and when employees interact with customers. Acrylic barriers at checkout lines are one method of physical control. Providing personal protective equipment and appropriate training on its use is another good method for maintaining infection control. As regulations relax, retailers need to evaluate what, if any, other changes should occur to keep safety at the forefront.

There are many other common sense practices retailers can adopt to help minimize the spread of any virus. Viral illnesses spread primarily between individuals, so the most important act of prevention is to keep employees healthy and safe. Hand washing is one of the most important steps we can take to help prevent the spread of illnesses. Most states require grocery stores to post restroom signs mandating that employees wash their hands, but these signs typically lack specific instructions. The CDC recommends cleaning hands in a specific way to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. The steps are the following:

  1. Dispense a paper towel, so it is ready before wetting hands
  2. Wet hands with warm (100°F/38°C) water
  3. Apply an appropriate amount of soap
  4. Rub hands vigorously together for 20 seconds
  5. Clean between the fingers, the backs of the hands and the fingertips
  6. Rinse hands under warm water to remove soap
  7. Dry hands with the paper towel
  8. Turn off faucet with a paper towel
  9. Use the paper towel to contact door surfaces to exit
  10. Throw away paper towel in a trash receptacle

Because grocery store workers touch food, increasing their handwashing frequency can help prevent the transmission of other types of illnesses beyond respiratory viruses. Employees should take care to wash their hands before donning gloves for any food preparation, after touching exposed skin, after handling soiled utensils and after engaging in any other activities that could soil hands.

Facility sanitization is another essential aspect in preventing the spread of illnesses. Grocery stores already have rigorous cleaning protocols that explain how to mix and use chemicals correctly. Additional instruction on how to apply cleaning agents to surface areas as well as visual reminders reminding workers how long a cleaning solution needs to remain before wiping with a cloth. To prevent the spread of infection, many stores have added more frequent cleaning for high-touch surfaces like door handles, touch screens and carts.

When approved sanitizers run low, however, some people turn to chlorine sanitizing agents like unscented bleach. Bleach can be a highly effective sanitizer, but it can also be potentially hazardous when misused. Specifically, when mixed with other cleaning products that contain ammonia, it creates a highly toxic chlorine gas. The cleaning staff needs proper training on how to mix and use cleaning solutions, use the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as wearing gloves or a protective outer garment, and to provide appropriate ventilation in rooms where sanitizers are mixed and stored.

Grocery stores have been at the forefront of the pandemic response for some time and they will be the first to adopt “new normal” procedures. Specific guidelines around health and safety evolve, but the fundamentals of health and safety stay the same. Stores that strive to maintain high standards around cleanliness and sanitation are likely to be better positioned for the inevitable next time.

Coronavirus, COVID-19

Fourth USDA Food Safety Inspector, at Least 30 Meat Plant Workers Dead from COVID-19

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Coronavirus, COVID-19

Last week another USDA food safety inspector died as a result of COVID-19. Time reported the unidentified inspector was located in Dodge City, Kansas, and cited a brief USDA statement: “USDA can confirm the passing of an employee. The safety and well being of our employees is our top priority. We thank those working on the front lines of our food supply chain for remaining on the job and for making sure the American people have access to safe food.”

Attend the webinar, “Is Your Plant COVID-19 Safe?” | May 27,2020 at 12 pm ET According to the report, at least 30 workers at meat plants have died of coronavirus, and a fourth USDA inspector as of May 14. More 100 USDA FSIS employees were self-quarantining as a result of exposure to COVID-19 and 171 field employees were diagnosed with the virus and did not report to work.

Worker safety at meat plants has been a concern for months, and the industry has been grappling with the threat of a meat shortage. On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open during the COVID-19 crisis.

FDA

As States Look to Reopen, FDA Releases Best Practices for Retail Food Establishments

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Across the country, many restaurants have been closed for at least two months, while others have been partially closed and offering take-out or delivery to customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As states begin their strategy to reopen the economy, many restaurants have already opened, and others are preparing for when this day comes. To better help food retail establishments during this uncertain time, the FDA has issued the checklist, “Best Practices for Re-Opening Retail Food Establishments During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, along with a two-page infographic.

The checklist offers guidance in several key areas related to food safety practices, including:

  • Facility Operations
  • Water, Plumbing and Ice
  • Food Contact and Non-food Contact Surfaces (clean, disinfect, sanitize)
  • Food Temperature Control
  • Product Inspection, Rotation
  • Dishwashing Equipment
  • Handwashing Stations
  • Employee Health/Screening
  • Social Distancing

While the food safety checklist covers a lot of ground, the FDA has stated that the list is not comprehensive. “We encourage retail food establishments to partner with local regulatory/health authorities to discuss the specific requirements for their retail food establishment prior to re-opening,” the agency states.

Karen Everstine, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

COVID-19 and Food Fraud Risk

By Karen Everstine, Ph.D.
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Karen Everstine, Decernis

While foodborne transmission of the novel coronavirus is unlikely , the virus has significantly affected all aspects of food production, food manufacturing, retail sales, and foodservice. The food and agriculture sector has been designated as a “critical infrastructure,” meaning that everyone from farm workers to pest control companies to grocery store employees has been deemed essential during this public health crisis.* As a society, we need the food and agriculture sector to continue to operate during a time when severe illnesses, stay-at-home orders and widespread economic impacts are occurring. Reports of fraudulent COVID-19 test kits and healthcare scams reinforce that “crime tends to survive and prosper in a crisis.” What does all of this mean for food integrity? Let’s look at some of the major effects on food systems and what they can tell us about the risk of food fraud.

Supply chains have seen major disruptions. Primary food production has generally continued, but there have been challenges within the food supply chain that have led to empty store shelves. Recent reports have noted shortages of people to harvest crops, multiple large meat processing facilities shut down due to COVID-19 cases, and recommendations for employee distancing measures that reduce processing rates. One large U.S. meat processor warned of the need to depopulate millions of animals and stated “the food supply chain is breaking.” (An Executive Order was subsequently issued to keep meat processing plants open).

Equally concerning are reports of supply disruptions in commodities coming out of major producing regions. Rice exports out of India have been delayed or stopped due to labor shortages and lockdown measures. Vietnam, which had halted rice exports entirely in March, has now agreed to resume exports that are capped at much lower levels than last year. Other countries have enacted similar protectionist measures. One group has predicted possible food riots in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil that may experience major food disruption coupled with high population density and poverty.

Supply chain complexity, transparency and strong and established supplier relationships are key aspects to consider as part of a food fraud prevention program. Safety or authenticity problems in one ingredient shipment can have a huge effect on the market if they are not identified before products get to retail (see Figure 1). Widespread supply chain disruptions, and the inevitable supplier adjustments that will need to be made by producers, increase the overall risk of fraud.

Reconstructed supply chain
Figure 1. Reconstructed supply chain based on recall data following the identification of Sudan I in the chili powder supply chain in 2005. Data source: Food Standards Agency of the U.K. National Archives and The Guardian. Figure from: Everstine, K. Supply Chain Complexity and Economically Motivated Adulteration. In: Food Protection and Security – Preventing and Mitigating Contamination during Food Processing and Production. Shaun Kennedy (Ed.) Woodhead Publishing: 26th October 2016. Available at: https://www.elsevier.com/books/food-protection-and-security/kennedy/978-1-78242-251-8

Regulatory oversight and audit programs have been modified. The combination of the public health risk that COVID-19 presents with the fact that food and agriculture system workers have been deemed “critical” has led to adjustments on the part of government and regulatory agencies (and private food safety programs) with respect to inspections, labeling requirements, audits, and other routine activities. The FDA has taken measures including providing flexibility in labeling for certain menus and food products, temporarily conducting remote inspections of food importers, and generally limiting domestic inspections to those that are most critical. USDA FSIS has also indicated they are “exercising enforcement discretion” to provide labeling flexibilities. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced they are prioritizing certain regulatory activities and temporarily suspending those activities determined to be “low risk.” GFSI has also taken measures to allow Certification Program Owners to provide certificate extensions due to the inability to conduct in-person audits.

While these organizations have assured stakeholders and the public that food safety is of primary importance, the level of direct regulatory and auditing oversight has been reduced to reduce the risk of virus transmission during in-person activities. Strong auditing programs with an anti-fraud component are an important aspect of food fraud prevention. Adjustments to regulatory and auditing oversight, as necessary as they may be, increase the risk of fraud in the food system.

There is a focus on safety and sustainability of foods. The food industry and regulatory agencies are understandably focused on basic food safety and food sustainability and less focused on non-critical issues such as quality and labeling. However, there is a general sense among some in industry that the risk of food fraud is heightened right now. Many of the effects on the industry due to COVID-19 are factors that are known to increase fraud risk: Supply chain disruptions, changes in commodity prices, supplier relationships (which may need to be changed in response to shortages), and a lack of strong auditing and oversight. However, as of yet, we have not seen a sharp increase in public reports of food fraud.

This may be due to the fact that we are still in the relatively early stages of the supply chain disruptions. India reported recently that the Food Safety Department of Kerala seized thousands of kilograms of “stale” and “toxic” fish and shrimp illegally brought in to replace supply shortages resulting from the halt in fishing that occurred due to lockdown measures.

High-value products may be particularly at risk. Certain high-value products, such as botanical ingredients used in foods and dietary supplements, may be especially at risk due to supply chain disruptions. Historical data indicate that high-value products such as extra virgin olive oil, honey, spices, and liquors, are perpetual targets for fraudulent activity. Turmeric, which we have discussed previously, was particularly cited as being at high risk for fraud due to “‘exploding’ demand ‘amidst supply chain disruptions.’”

How can we ensure food sufficiency, safety, and integrity? FAO has recommended that food banks be mobilized, the health of workers in the food and agriculture sector be prioritized, that governments support small food producers, and that trade and tax policies keep global food trade open. They go on to say, “by keeping the gears of the supply chains moving and actively seeking international cooperation to keep trade open, countries can prevent food shortages and protect the most vulnerable populations.” FAO and WHO also published interim guidance for national food safety control systems, which noted the increased risk of food fraud. They stated “during this pandemic, competent authorities should investigate reported incidences involving food fraud and work closely with food businesses to assess the vulnerability of supply chains…”.

From a food industry perspective, some important considerations include whether businesses have multiple approved suppliers for essential ingredients and the availability of commodities that may affect your upstream suppliers. The Acheson Group recommends increasing supply chain surveillance during this time. The Food Chemicals Codex group recommends testing early and testing often and maintaining clear and accurate communication along the supply chain.1 The nonprofit American Botanical Council, in a memo from its Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program, stated “responsible buyers, even those with relatively robust quality control programs, may need to double- or even triple-down on QC measures that deal with ingredient identity and authenticity.”

Measures to ensure the sufficiency, sustainability, safety and integrity of foods are more closely linked than ever before. In this time when sufficiency is critical, it is important to avoid preventable food recalls due to authenticity concerns. We also need to stay alert for situations where illegal and possibly hazardous food products enter the market due to shortages created by secondary effects of the virus. The best practices industry uses to reduce the risk of food fraud are now important for also ensuring the sufficiency, sustainability and safety of the global food supply.

Reference

  1. Food Safety Tech. (April 24, 2020). “COVID-19 in the Food Industry: Mitigating and Preparing for Supply Chain Disruptions “. On-Demand Webinar. Registration page retrieved from https://register.gotowebinar.com/recording/1172058910950755596

*Foodborne transmission is, according to the Food Standards Agency in the U.K., “unlikely” and, according to the U.S. FDA, “currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”