Tag Archives: virus

Checklist

2020 FSC Episode 4 Wrap: FDA: There’s a Strong Business and Public Health Case for Better Traceability

By Maria Fontanazza
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Checklist

One year ago the FDA held an at-capacity public meeting to discuss its latest initiative, the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. At the time, the agency was planning to release the blueprint for the New Era in the spring of 2020. In fact, the FDA was just days away from unveiling it when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. The blueprint was put aside and it was all hands on deck, as the agency worked with the food industry to ensure companies continued operating, as they were deemed a part of America’s critical infrastructure. From there, the agency navigated through uncharted waters with the food industry and its stakeholders. It signed an MOU with USDA in an effort to prevent disruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities and address shortages of PPE, disinfection and sanitation supplies. It announced that it would conduct remote inspections and extended the comment period for the Laboratory Accreditation Program Proposed Rule. It released a COVID-19 food safety checklist with OSHA to help guide companies through employee health, social distancing, and the operational issues that have entered into play as a result of the pandemic. Food companies and the supply chain were facing an enormous challenge.

“I always thought we had one of the best food systems in the world… by and large we have an amazing food system,” said Frank Yiannas deputy commissioner for food policy and response during last week’s keynote address at the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. “We just experienced the biggest test on the food system in 100 years. Have we passed the test? I don’t think anyone would say we scored 100%… but by and large we passed the test.” Yiannas added that COVID-19 has exposed some strengths and weaknesses in the food system as well. He also emphasized a point that he has been driving home throughout the pandemic: “The virus that causes COVID-19 is not a virus that is transmitted by food. It is a respiratory virus and generally transmitted in very different ways.”

The FDA released the blueprint for the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, which incorporated some lessons learned from COVID-19, in July. Traceability is a big part of agency’s new era initiative, and the pandemic further put a spotlight on the need for better tracking and tracing in the food industry. And under FSMA, FDA is required to “establish a system that will enhance its ability to track and trace both domestic and imported foods”. In working to meet this requirement, FDA proposed the FSMA rule on food traceability last month.

Yiannas said the proposed rule has the potential to lay the foundation for meaningful harmonization and called aspects of the proposed rule game changing. It establishes two critical components that are the leading edge of food traceability: It defines critical tracking events (i.e., what are the types of events in the food system that required those events to be kept) and key data elements (i.e., the data elements that must be captured at those critical tracking events). “These two things are big ideas for traceability,” said Yiannas. “They will allow us to harmonize how traceability is to be done, allow us to scale and allow for greater interoperability.” The proposed rule also creates a traceability list that identifies foods based on a risk-ranking model for food tracing.

FDA is encouraging comments on the proposed rule and is holding three meetings (November 6, November 18 and December 2) to discuss the proposed traceability rule. “We are going to create the final rule together,” said Yiannas.

Follow this link to the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, which provides access to 14 episodes of critical industry insights from leading subject matter experts! We look forward to your joining us virtually.

Jill Henry, Essity
FST Soapbox

The New Hygiene Standard: Building Trust Through Employee Safety

By Jill Henry
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Jill Henry, Essity

The pandemic has heightened the need for a new hygiene standard at food manufacturing sites. On August 19, OSHA and FDA released a health and hygiene checklist for food manufacturers to increase employee safety and help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at sites. This checklist reinforces the importance of elevating hygiene standards, but it can be difficult to know where to start—especially for food manufacturers aiming to maintain productivity while maximizing hygiene compliance and safety.

For food manufacturers seeking to navigate OSHA and FDA’s new guide, it’s important to remember that no matter the environment, the basics of hygiene remain true. You can kick-start your updated hygiene plan by implementing simple hygiene best practices and establishing comprehensive and clear protocols to achieve compliance on the road ahead. Remember, employee health and productivity begins with a safety-first mindset. Start by establishing a strong foundation with these tips that will help you maintain your food manufacturing site’s hygiene checklist amid COVID-19 and beyond.

Achieve Hand Hygiene Compliance

Hands are the most exposed part of the body to pathogens. Therefore, hand hygiene is considered one of the most important and effective measures to avoid the transmission of harmful pathogens, viruses and diseases. Given this, consistent and proper handwashing is a fundamental aspect of any hygiene plan, especially in food manufacturing sites where employees frequently touch common surfaces (e.g., door handles, technical equipment, etc.) . People often (and unknowingly) touch their eyes, nose and mouth after touching contaminated surfaces, which contributes to potential transmission.

Hand hygiene is proven to be a primary line of defense in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and other pathogens, but only when conducted properly. To maintain hand hygiene compliance, the CDC advises that employees thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water, under warm or cold water for at least 20 seconds, before properly drying their hands with a paper towel. All too often, people forget the importance of hand drying in the handwashing process, but it’s very significant as hand drying can help remove any remaining germs from the skin. In addition, germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands, which makes hand drying critical after a thorough handwashing.

Utilize Signage as Visual Cues

While many are familiar with the importance of hand hygiene, it can be difficult to put into practice when employees are busy on the job and forging ahead on production lines. Keep hand hygiene top of mind by utilizing visual cues, such as signage, to remind employees about when, where and how to wash their hands properly. Signage serves as visual reminders to achieve proper hand hygiene compliance and is an important part of establishing a site’s hygiene standard and foundation.

Opt for signage that includes a direct call to action for employees. Using the word “you” can also increase efficacy by calling directly upon the person reading the sign to participate in hand hygiene compliance. Additionally, signage should be updated frequently to keep employees engaged and hand hygiene top of mind. New and fresh reminders on the importance of handwashing will help keep employees attentive, but if you don’t have the time or resources to continually update on-site signage, leverage free tools available online to help you get started.

Establish Surface Cleaning Protocols without Sacrificing Productivity

COVID-19 can spread from surface-to-person contact. This can happen when an employee carrying the virus touches technical equipment on a production line that is not properly wiped down before the next employee’s shift. With this in mind, it’s critical to establish effective surface cleaning protocols that mitigate instances of cross-contamination and don’t create downtime in production or processing.

To create an efficient surface hygiene plan, assess high-touch areas, and develop a list based on where you observe high-touch surfaces to ensure these areas are properly sanitized ahead of shift changes. Provide employees with the surface cleaning checklist that enables them to effectively sanitize surfaces prior to departing their shift. The checklist should include key areas that must be disinfected, as well as tips to properly disinfect surfaces.

When disinfecting surfaces, use an approved disinfectant and a disposable cloth, which ensures the surface is being wiped down with a non-contaminated wiper each time. If using an alcohol-based product, use one with a minimum of 70% alcohol (i.e., Ethanol or Isopropyl alcohol), and always follow the manufacturer’s application guidelines.

Optimize Sanitization Stations and Dispenser Placement
Think strategically and practically about dispenser placement in food manufacturing sites because where sanitizer dispensers are placed makes a difference in whether they are used by employees. Similar to establishing surface cleaning protocols, start by observing where high-traffic areas are on site, and consider critical entry and exit points that would benefit from a dispenser. Dispensers should also be placed in clear view, so they are easily accessible for employees. Consider pairing signage with dispensers as a helpful reminder to utilize these stations and provide instruction on best practices to sanitize effectively.

Optimizing dispenser placement doesn’t stop with implementation. Once dispensers are in place, continue to monitor where dispensers are most frequently used, and assess other areas prime for dispensers. Remember: Employee hygiene and safety is a priority, and optimally placing dispensers and hygiene solutions where they are needed to encourage use is key to creating a safer environment. Place dispensers in areas such as common spaces, near production lines, in locker rooms, and at entrances and exits in order to encourage regular surface cleaning and hand washing. Flexible mounting solutions and portable solutions can facilitate access in harsher environments. The availability of hygiene products encourages their use, so be sure to keep dispensers fully stocked.

Promote Awareness among Employees and Instill Confidence

It’s more important than ever to build employee trust and confidence. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Communicate frequently with employees and distribute guidelines around COVID-19 so that they understand the measures being introduced and how you will continually monitor your environment. Consider implementing COVID-19-specific training and education sessions that empower employees to ask questions about hygiene and safety measures on site, and provide essential instruction on COVID-19 and what to do if a case is confirmed among employees. These sessions can also be used to provide further education and emphasis on how individuals can maintain hygiene compliance for the greater good of the manufacturing site and their colleagues.

In the current environment, it’s clear that food manufacturers must secure a new hygiene standard to maintain employee health and safety and continue to deliver essential products. But with ongoing shifts, changes and uncertainty, it can be challenging to juggle operations and hygiene compliance—while instilling trust and confidence among employees. Whether a site is continuing, resuming or re-evaluating operations amid the current pandemic, it is critical to maintain a strong foundation for hygiene, so that employees are safe and essential production moves ahead.

Food Safety Consortium

2020 FSC Episode 5 Preview: Food Labs

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Food Safety Consortium

This week’s episode of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series promises to be an insightful discussion on topics critical to food laboratories. The following are some highlights:

  • Developing Your Technology During a Pandemic/COVID Testing Food, with Douglas Marshall, Ph.D., Eurofins
  • Viral Landscape of Testing, with Vik Dutta, bioMérieux; Prasant Prusty, Pathogenia, Inc.; Efi Papafragkou, Ph.D., FDA; and Erin Crowley, Q Laboratories
  • The FSMA Proposed Rule on Laboratory Accreditation and the Impacts on Labs and Lab Data Users, with Douglas Leonard, ANAB
  • Tech Talk from PathogenDX

The event begins at 12 pm ET. Haven’t registered? Follow this link to the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, which provides access to 14 episodes of critical industry insights from leading subject matter experts! We look forward to your joining us virtually.

Checklist

2020 FSC Episode 3 Wrap: 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.

FST Soapbox

FDA Announces Inspections Will Resume…Sort Of

By Trish Wester
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FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, M.D. recently announced that food safety inspections will resume in July, but inspectors will be given leeway to accommodate the coronavirus pandemic. Inspections will be prearranged by appointments. The agency suspended routine inspections in late March as a result of the pandemic response, which closed down much of the country.

USDA/FSIS has continued to provide inspection services for eggs, meat and poultry throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, with a significant number of establishments involved in outbreak clusters and periodic shutdowns.

The “White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” calls for the FDA to send out investigators for on-site inspections by the week of July 20, using the COVID-19 Advisory Rating system, which utilizes state and national data about infection rates to determine the regions where enforcement can resume.

In a July 10 FDA statement Hahn noted, “resuming prioritized domestic inspections will depend on the data about the virus’ trajectory in a given state and locality, and the rules and guidelines that are put in place by state and local governments.”

One of the most significant modifications for domestic inspections in the announcement is that they will be pre-announced to FDA-regulated businesses. “This will help assure the safety of the investigator and the firm’s employees, providing the safest possible environment to accomplish our regulatory activities, while also ensuring the appropriate staff is on-site to assist FDA staff with inspection activities,” Hahn said. Previously, most inspections were unannounced.

It’s not entirely clear how FDA will use the White House guidelines to determine where they can schedule inspections. There is mention of a prioritization mechanism that will identify high-risk operations, but that has traditionally been part of FDA’s approach to inspections.

The CDC published phased guidelines for states to follow in reopening, which are referred to in the announcement. The guidelines document outlines the gating criteria for states, but published versions do not mention inspection requirements. Many states began reopening without meeting all of the gateway criteria for Phase 1, and continued to accelerate reopening activities in a way that makes it unclear which phase criteria they may have actually met when compared to the phase under which they claim to be operating.

Further complicating the safety issue is the recent rising number of COVID-19 cases that is causing some states to pause or rollback reopening activities. Since publishing the announcement, several states have emerged as new COVID-19 hot spots, including Texas, Arizona and Florida; In addition, Florida has surpassed New York in total cases. California, another food producing state heavily affected by the pandemic, is seeing a significant increase in cases and is considering issuing new shelter-in-place orders. It was recently reported that CDC has identified 21 states as “Red Zones”, with at least 11 states on the verge of surging cases.

In other words, with the virus on the rise, there may not be a significant number of inspections actually performed, regardless of whether or not inspections have technically resumed, simply because there just isn’t a safe way to send inspectors out.

The FDA has also published the “New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint”, which includes ways the agency could use technology to support compliance activities. There may be an opportunity for the FDA to implement new tools such as remote verification in lieu of onsite inspections, but that remains to be seen. Among such tools, remote audit pilots were recently completed and those results will be available for public presentation at the end of August.

In the short term, should FDA determine you are an inspection candidate, you will contacted in advance to schedule a day and time.

Jennifer van de Ligt, Food Protection and Defense Institute, University of Minnesota

Q&A: Pandemic Puts Worker Health & Safety, Leadership Skills and Business Adaptability at Forefront

By Maria Fontanazza
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Jennifer van de Ligt, Food Protection and Defense Institute, University of Minnesota

Issues with the health of frontline workers, supply chain disruptions, and changes in consumer behavior are just a few vulnerabilities that the food industry is experiencing as a result of COVID-19. Food Safety Tech recently had a conversation with Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program and Food Protection and Defense Institute about the hurdles that the industry is experiencing and where we go from here.

Food Safety Tech: What challenges is the food system facing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where are the vulnerabilities?

Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D.: The food system is facing primary, secondary and tertiary challenges right now. I see two main drivers as disruptors as a result of COVID-19. The health and safety of employees is the first primary driver. As COVID-19 has more broadly spread through the U.S., ensuring the health and safety of employees in the food system has become essential; however, the pandemic has shown us the food system has struggled with that.

The other big primary challenge facing the food system has been the swift change in consumer behavior. Pre-COVID-19, nearly half of food was consumed away from home. When restaurants closed, and stay-at-home orders were in place, it put extreme amounts of pressure on our food retail segment, causing supply and demand issues.

Regarding the health and safety of employees: We’ve seen meat processing struggle with production demands because the health of their employees has been impacted by the virus. In mid-April, the beef and pork capacity in this country went down by over 40%. They are making great improvements and are approaching normal harvest capacity range for both [beef and pork production]. Meat cuts being produced are slightly different than normal, as this part of the meat plants are very labor intensive. This has really highlighted the need to make sure that we keep the health and safety of our food system employees front and center.

During the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, Jennifer Van de Ligt will participate in a panel discussion on November 5 about Professional Development and Women in Food Safety | Register Now Now that the meat supply chain is beginning to recover, we’re also beginning to see increasing effects on non-meat supply manufacturing. This isn’t isolated to food manufacturing; as we experience broader community spread, COVID-19 will impact all aspects of our food system.

On consumer behavior: As consumers shifted to food retail, immense pressure was quickly put on our food supply chain logistics, manufacturing timing and processes, the speed to warehouses and delivery, etc.

One example that demonstrates a challenge in manufacturing and consumer demand is the difference in volumes for food services versus retail. I like to use the example of shredded cheese. At a grocery store, you’ll find a one-pound pack, but shredded cheese in food service might be in a 10-pound bag. There are not a lot of consumers who want to buy a 10-pound bag of shredded cheese. Well, why can’t cheese manufacturers just package bulk product into one-pound packs? There are several reasons that don’t allow producers to pivot quickly: They may not have the machinery or packaging to do that. Also, changing packaging from food service to retail requires different labels and regulatory approvals. Examples like this led to many of the spot outages consumers found in grocery stores. In the produce sector, it led to produce being plowed under in fields because they didn’t have the distribution channels to go into retail instead of into food service.

In the Integrated Food System Leadership (IFSL) program, we’ve recently discussed food equity and food injustice as a result of COVID-19. As food retail became stressed and unemployment increased, we saw a huge demand for our food assistance networks. Because food retail is one of the primary contributors to the food assistance networks, there wasn’t enough volume being donated. In addition, food service foods are not appropriately packaged to go into the food assistance networks and food banks, similar to the issue in moving to food retail. This led to tremendous pressure and innovative solutions to source and distribute food to a newly vulnerable population.

As we look ahead into the coming months, many of the vulnerabilities in the food system will be the same. We have to continuously monitor the health and safety of our employees to keep our food system as a whole functional. There’s a growing recognition that our primary agriculture workers are also at risk—the people in fields harvesting and planting. There are many groups providing recommendations on how to protect agriculture employees and communities where they work and reside.

We’ll see continued adaptation in the food system to the new reality of how restaurants and food service engage with their consumers with the shift in behavior to limited restaurant dining and increases in online ordering.

FST: In what areas do food manufacturers, processors or growers need to adapt moving forward in order to thrive?

Van de Ligt: There are several. First, I think this crisis has really brought worker health and welfare to the forefront, and there will be more emphasis on the essentiality of food system workers. They were previously a behind-the-scenes workforce. The issue of worker health and welfare is going to accelerate in many industries, but I also see a push to more automation. The human workforce is necessary, and people do a really wonderful job, but are there areas that might benefit from automation? I think those go hand in hand.

I also think the global food system needs to rethink how it remains resilient. In the past, there’s been a focus on resilience and efficiency through economy of scale. That still exists and may look different moving forward. Using the meat industry as an example, that economy of scale was also its biggest weakness that had gone unrecognized. Going forward, I think there are many companies that are going to consider alternative supply chains. Should multiple, smaller plants be utilized instead of one large plant to provide a more resilient framework for production? Other companies are going to think about installing equipment or processing lines that could more quickly pivot between food service and food retail. There’s also a huge opportunity now for local and smaller markets to really make an impact as people look for alternative supply chains and sources. We found that many of the local food markets and co-ops, especially those that provided into food service, pivoted pretty quickly to pop-up online marketplaces to provide food direct to consumer. I think we’ll see that trend increase as well.

In order to feed billions of people worldwide, it’s essential that the food industry take a broader systems approach versus the siloed approach path we’ve been using. The pandemic has highlighted how the food system is an intricately functioning balance and requires collaboration. Our food system will only be able to move forward faster with less disruption when we have food system leaders who understand the intricacies and the ripple effects of the challenges we face. Leaders who understand the impacts of decisions outside of their sphere will be essential to plan for impacts from natural disasters, another pandemic, etc.—and to create a more responsive and resilient food system in the future.

FST: Where does this leave folks who are either beginning or rising in their careers in food safety? Do you think the pandemic has changed food safety careers as they’ve historically functioned?

Van de Ligt: I like to say that ‘what got us here is not going to get us there.’ In general, if you think about where food safety careers have been in the past, the roles have been all about consistency, understanding regulations, making sure we do everything precisely right all of the time so we don’t have a food safety outbreak.

The focus on doing things precisely right all of the time will absolutely continue. What I think will shift is the need for food safety professionals to think more broadly than just the regulations that are required for compliance. Food safety professionals need to understand more about the system that is happening outside their facility; the impact of their work going backwards and forwards in the supply chain.

How things have worked historically in a food safety role has been having a consistent supplier network that provides the same type of product every time; you know what to expect, how to produce and distribute safe food for the customers you serve. In a situation like COVID-19, because of the disruptions from farm to fork, the suppliers you need to work with may be different and you need to quickly make decisions spontaneously as supply shifts. Having the knowledge and skills to navigate changes is essential to ensure the quality and safety of your product.

A highly technical focus that many professionals have when they start their career is often too narrow and won’t be enough for emerging food system leaders. Leadership skills are vital as well. In the IFSL program we teach food system professionals how to explore proactive viewpoints, not just managing people or responsibilities. Managers make sure things are done things correctly; leaders make sure we do the right thing. In order to learn how to do the right thing, we teach skills and tools on how to navigate uncertainty; practicing active listening, constructive feedback; and understanding the concerns of a supplier or customer are examples.

We emphasize and teach in the IFSL program that food system professionals and leaders need to be much more proactive. This means equipping them with the food system knowledge and leadership skills so they can predict and prepare for how decisions affect upstream and downstream. Having a broader viewpoint is critical to adaptivity, which will build resilience and help limit disruption.

Coronavirus, COVID-19

China Stops Poultry Imports From Tyson Foods Due to COVID-19 Concerns, Clamping Down on Inspections

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Coronavirus, COVID-19

On Sunday China’s General Administration of Customs announced that it would be suspending imported shipments of poultry from a Tyson Foods plant based in Springdale, Arkansas. The suspension is reportedly due to an outbreak of coronavirus cases at the facility.

On Friday Tyson Foods announced the results of COVID-19 testing conducted at its facilities in northwestern Arkansas (Benton and Washington counties): 3,748 employees were tested; 481 tested positive, and 95% were asymptomatic.

“The results across our Northwest Arkansas facilities, and the country more broadly, reflect how much is still unknown about this virus, which is why Tyson is committed to providing information to our local health officials and enhanced education to our team members,” said Tom Brower, senior vice president of health and safety for Tyson Foods stated in a company press release. “Through our inclusive approach to large-scale testing, we are finding that a very high level of team members who test positive do not show symptoms. Identifying asymptomatic cases helps the community, since other testing is often limited to people who feel unwell.”

Meanwhile, it has also been reported that officials in China want the inspection process of overseas shipments ramped up, as they suspect that COVID-19 could be present on imported frozen food products.

Over the weekend PepsiCo’s Beijing operations were suspended following confirmed coronavirus cases at its chips production facility.

Last week new cases of the coronavirus were reported in Beijing, leading to concerns of a resurgence of the virus. Some new cases have been linked to the Xinfadi Market, a wholesale food market.

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.

Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services
FST Soapbox

The COVID-19 Record Retention Conundrum

By Melanie J. Neumann
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Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services

During this global pandemic, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) green-lighted employers to take temperatures checks of employees and to administer COVID-19 testing for workers prior to returning to work without running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This appears straight-forward upon first reading, however, several practical uncertainties about implementation, including confidentiality, discrimination, and how long to retain records remain.

As such, deciding whether to take temperatures and/or require COVID- 19 testing as a return to work strategy is more complicated than it may seem.

Temperature Screening & Testing Considerations

Temperature screening and COVID-19 mandatory testing are both permitted medical examinations during this pandemic but are otherwise prohibited during non-pandemic times. Before adopting, employers should understand the requirements impacting the records these tests generate, including the need to protect confidentiality and to retain records for longer than one may expect.

Temperature Screens
Under normal circumstances, temperature checks are considered a prohibited medical examination under the ADA. During a pandemic, however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) makes an exception, allowing employers to take temperatures/use temperature checks and exclude employees from the workplace should temperatures exceed public health recommendations. If employers keep records of temperatures, they must retain these records per applicable regulations. This is important because an “employee medical record” would likely result if employers take employees’ temperatures or collect temperature related records. As we will see below, there are regulatory requirements that require how we conduct these screens, and where and for how long we must retain them.

COVID-19 Testing

COVID-19 testing also constitutes a permissible medical exam under ADA during this pandemic, per the EEOC-issued guidance regarding mandatory employee testing.

For medical examinations to be allowed under the ADA, the test must be “job related and consistent with business necessity,” and employers must treat information as a confidential medical exam.

The initial guidance acknowledged that the spread of COVID-19 is a “direct threat,” hence meeting the requirement that a medical exam be “job related and consistent with business necessity” and that temperature screenings were therefore appropriate. For the same reasons, in updated guidance released at the end of April 2020, the EEOC expanded that guidance to clarify that employers may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus for the same reasons.

When reading the EEOC’s language closely, the permission granted by EEOC appears to be for diagnostic tests, as the guidance states testing is to determine if employees have the virus before allowing employees to return to work. It is unclear whether antibody testing is included in the above analysis because antibody tests do not determine if someone is currently infected.

In addition, there are other considerations employers should assess before adopting a testing protocol. EEOC reminds employers that they must review the accuracy and efficacy of the selected test per FDA and CDC recommendations. Moreover, pragmatic considerations, such as how to maintain social distancing and employee privacy, determining who will perform the testing and at what the frequency, not to mention evaluating whether there is enough test capacity to perform employee-wide testing at a meaningful cadence should be evaluated.

Records Management & Retention

There is another often over-looked question: What do employers do with documented test records? This question applies whether the employer conducts the test, requires tests from employee’s healthcare providers to be off work to self-isolate, or as a return to work requirement.

It was clearly outlined above that temperature records and COVID-19 test records constitute employee medical records. Why is this important? Because there are specific requirements relating to employee medical records, including what appears to be a surprisingly long retention requirement.

Where to retain: An employer should store all medical information related to COVID-19 in existing medical files, separate from the employee’s personnel file, per the ADA, limiting access to this employee confidential information. This includes an employee’s statement that he has COVID-19 or suspects he/she has the disease, or the employer’s notes or other documentation from questioning an employee about symptoms.

How long to retain: That is the 30-year question. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) provides retention requirements for employee medical records in certain situations for a period of an employee’s employment plus 30 years.

While COVID-19 test results and temperature screening documentation are deemed medical examinations under the applicable regulations, are the documented results deemed medical records? We turn to applicable EEOC OSHA regulations in section 1910.1020 for answers.

OSHA Requirements

The OSHA general duty clause, section 5(a)(1) requires employers to furnish to each of its employees a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. COVID-19 appears to rise to this threat level. But is that fact alone dispositive to falling under the applicable OSHA retention requirements?

OSHA regulation section 1910.1020 requires employers to retain employee exposure or employee medical records relating to employee exposure to certain hazards. This section applies to each general industry, maritime and construction employer who makes, maintains, contracts for, or has access to employee exposure or medical records, or analyses thereof, pertaining to employees exposed to toxic substances or harmful physical agents (Emphasis added).

Is SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, considered a “toxic substance or harmful physical agent?”

Most would quickly assume the answer is ‘yes’. But it may not be as clear as the black and white letter of the law would hope. Let’s review some key definitions in the applicable regulation to help shed more light on this question.

What are Toxic Substances or Harmful Physical Agents?

The record retention requirement pivots on the last phrase of 1910.1020, that is “…pertaining to employees exposed to toxic substances or harmful physical agents.”

Toxic substances or harmful physical agents are defined as follows;

  • 1910.1020(c)(13) “Toxic substance or harmful physical agent” means any chemical substance, biological agent (bacteria, virus, fungus, etc.), or physical stress (noise, heat, cold, vibration, repetitive motion, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, hypo – or hyperbaric pressure, etc.) which:
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(i) is listed in the latest printed edition of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances (RTECS) which is incorporated by reference as specified in Sec. 1910.6; or
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(ii) has yielded positive evidence of an acute or chronic health hazard in testing conducted by, or known to, the employer; or
    • 1910.1020(c)(13)(iii) is the subject of a material safety data sheet kept by or known to the employer indicating that the material may pose a hazard to human health. (Emphasis added by author).

The use of “or” clarifies that only one of the criteria need to be met. Based on the above, while subsections (c)(13)(i) and (c)(13)(iii) do not appear relevant, subsection (c)(13)(ii) appears to apply as SARS-CoV-2 has shown to result in acute health hazard, resulting in the disease COVID-19. Whether there is a chronic health impact remains to be seen given the novelty of this virus. That said, acute health impact appears sufficient to determine SARS-CoV-2 as a “toxic substance or harmful physical agent” for purposes of this analysis.

This alone doesn’t automatically place an employer in a 30-plus year requirement to retain employee medical records. What constitutes an “employee medical record” and “employee exposure record” for purposes of this regulation must be further understood before determining appropriate retention.

What are Employee Medical Records and Employee Exposure Records?

“Employee medical records” are defined in section 1910.1020(c)(6), and means a record concerning the health status of an employee that is made or maintained by a physician, nurse or other healthcare personnel, or technician, including: Medical and employment questionnaires or histories, the results of medical exams, lab test results, medical opinions/doctor’s recommendations, first aid records, employee medical complaints, and descriptions of treatment or prescriptions.

Section 1910.1020(d)(1)(i) goes on to specifically prescribes a minimum of a 30-plus year retention period as follows: “The medical record for each employee shall be preserved and maintained for at least the duration of employment plus thirty (30) years.”

“Employee exposure records,” are defined in subsection 1910.1020(d)(1)(ii), as: “Each employee exposure record shall be preserved and maintained for at least thirty (30) years,…”. Some exceptions are listed in this subsection for records relating to health insurance claims, first aid records and records relating to employees working less than one year.

What Constitutes Employee Exposure?

One must also look at what “employee exposure” means in light of this regulatory requirement to determine applicability of the 30-plus year retention.

1910.1020(c)(8) defines “exposure” or “exposed” to mean that an employee is subjected to a toxic substance or harmful physical agent in the course of employment through any route of entry (inhalation, ingestion, skin contact or absorption, etc.), and includes past exposure and potential (e.g., accidental or possible) exposure, but does not include situations where the employer can demonstrate that the toxic substance or harmful physical agent is not used, handled, stored, generated, or present in the workplace in any manner different from typical non-occupational situations.

More Questions than Answers

This analysis may leave more questions than answers, as several questions remain after looking closely at the regulatory requirements. For example:

  • How can an employee prove that exposure to SARS-CoV-2 occurred in the course of employment?
  • Does the employee even have to? The regulation clearly states that it is the employer’s burden, in that the “employer demonstrate that a toxic substance or harmful physical agent was not present in the workplace in any manner different from typical, non-occupational situations”.
  • How can an “employer demonstrate” that the harmful physical agent was not present? In other words, how can employers demonstrate that its employees are at any greater exposure by coming to work than they are in their every day lives, like going to the grocery store?
  • How do employers prove absence? Is it even possible given several people are asymptomatic?
  • Does this analysis differ by food industry sectors? What about meat and poultry processors with known high rates of infection in their workplace? Would the analysis differ?

Conclusion

Short of additional guidance issued by Department of Labor’s OSHA, ultimately this will likely be decided by the courts when the first lawsuit on this topic arises, known as decision via case law. What do employers do in the interim while these shades of gray are not yet adjudicated? It is recommended to err on the side of caution. Find ways to adjust your company’s record retention procedures and systems to be able to accurately retain these records for the duration of your employee’s employment plus 30 years.

Resources

  1. OSHA Laws & Regulations. OSH Act of 1970. SEC 5. Duties. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/oshact/section5-duties
  2. OSHA Standards. Part 1910, Standard 1910.1020. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1020
  3. OSHA. Access to Medical and Exposure Records. (2001). U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/Publications/pub3110text.html
  4.  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws”. (Updated May 7, 2020). Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws. See A. 6 and B.1.
Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech
From the Editor’s Desk

COVID-19 in the Food Industry: So Many Questions

By Maria Fontanazza
1 Comment
Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech

Industries across the global are reeling from the COVID-19 crisis. Although we are clearly not in a state of “business as usual”, the food industry is essential. And as this entire industry must continue to move forward in its duty to provide safe, quality food products, so many questions remain. These questions include: Should I test my employees for fever before allowing them into the manufacturing facility? What do we do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? How can the company continue safe production? Should we sanitize between shifts on the production line? Should employees on the production floor wear face masks and shields? At what temperature can the virus be killed? The list truly goes on. We saw it ourselves during the first Food Safety Tech webinar last week, “COVID-19 in the Food Industry: Protecting Your Employees and Consumers” (you can register and listen to the recording here). Amidst their incredibly busy schedules, we were lucky to be graced with the presence and expertise of Shawn Stevens (food safety lawyer, Food Industry Counsel, LLC), April Bishop (senior director of food safety, TreeHouse Foods, Inc. and Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D. (vice president of food safety, United Fresh Produce Association) for this virtual event.

From a manufacturing point of view, we learned about the important ways companies can protect their employees—via thorough cleaning of high-touch areas, vigilance with CDC-recommended sanitizers, conducting risk assessments related to social distancing and employees in the production environment—along with the “what if’s” related to employees who test positive for COVID-19. Although FDA has made it clear that there is currently no indication of human transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through food or food packaging, some folks are concerned about this issue as well.

“The U.S. food supply remains safe for both people and animals. There is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response in the agency’s blog last week. “Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. This virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.”

As the industry continues to adjust to this new and uncertain environment, we at Food Safety Tech are working to keep you in touch with experts who can share best practices and answer your questions. I encourage you to join us on Thursday, April 2 for our second webinar in this series that I referenced earlier, COVID-19 in the Food Industry: Enterprise Risk Management and the Supply Chain. We will be joined by Melanie Neumann, executive vice president & general counsel for Matrix Sciences International, Inc. and Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D., Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety at Cornell University, and the event promises to reveal more important information about how we can work through this crisis together.

We hear it often in our industry: “Food safety is not a competitive advantage.” This phrase has never been more true.

Stay safe, stay well, and thank you for all that you do.