Focus on Food Safety: Pandemic learnings
Although we are in the midst of a third wave of COVID-19, I thought that it would be good to look back at what our industry endured to keep foods safe on store shelves this past year, and suggest what we need to do going forward.
Even before the pandemic was declared, our industry was overwhelmed with information and misinformation about the virus. For example, it was widely believed the virus could be transmitted through food. Consumers shouldn’t be blamed for being fearful. After all, the global media did quote the World Health Organization’s reports that said the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, had likely resulted from virus-contaminated foods. This belief was further supported by the Chinese government’s act of closing the Wuhan market and clamping down on the sale of exotic foods.
Consumers were advised to assume foods could be infected. One could find instructions on how to sanitize packaged and raw products on social media sites like Facebook as well as on websites of academic institutions around the world. We were judged guilty and our products were tainted even though there was no evidence about foods contributing to the spread of the virus. In the end, the virus outbreak created an international food safety crisis.
Sanitation-supply companies, food safety consultants, regional government employee health and safety personnel, member organizations, building contractors, laundry-service companies, suppliers of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) and countless other well-intentioned organizations rushed to our aid with products and services they felt we needed to cope with the threats of the virus. It was easy to be overwhelmed with information, with deciding what’s the best action and, of course, how to pay for the additional safety measures.
Further, many of our food service customers had to close operations, leaving processors and distributors with warehouses full of proprietary products packaged especially for food service clients. Additionally, the rush to stock up on essential items left store shelves empty for days, and sometimes weeks, before being replenished. Price gouging was also rampant.
The industry’s first reaction was to double down on sanitation and good manufacturing practices (SSOPs and GMPs) because we were told these practices would be as effective in controlling viruses as they are in controlling traditional pathogenic and spoilage micro-organisms. The virus’s outer shell or envelope is readily susceptible to a variety of sanitizers commonly used in our industry. While companies with well-established, validated and verified SSOP and GMP programs breathed a sigh of relief, those with poor SSOPs and GMPs scrambled to implement these programs.
It didn’t take long for us to realize the virus posed another, even greater, threat to the industry. It started infecting the people we depend on to create safe foods and run and clean the equipment. Our employees fell sick, some died and many stayed away out of fear of contracting the virus at work.
Companies that adopted adversarial employee management practices quickly discovered the lack of goodwill led to chronic absenteeism. This, in turn, exposed the companies to greater food safety and quality risks. Companies that encouraged and nurtured employee-company interaction were impacted far less severely by COVID-19.
Where we stand today
American virologists are now saying the chances of catching COVID-19 or any of its variants from foods are very low—less than one in 10,000. After months of sampling imported foods, China detected only a handful of COVID-positive products, all of which were from Brazil. Most reports of the virus’s ability to survive for weeks on a variety of surfaces were not based on methods used to test for viable viruses, but based on tests for the viruses’ RNA and/or other constituents that remain long after the virus ceases to be viable.
However, COVID-19 continues to be a real threat to our industry, given the highly infectious nature of the variants. The variants are infecting younger people and much more severely than before.
Addressing the threat
Unfortunately, there are no “silver bullets” or magic programs to protect products and people against COVID-19 and its variants. Nevertheless, we know the risk of virus transmission on foods is very low, and will be lower if we have solid SSOP and GMP programs. Employing social distancing, wearing quality PPE and conducting infection-awareness training are proven protective measures. Lastly, but not the least, tell your employees you care for them and their families. Remind them of this daily. Educate them on what they need to do to stay safe at work and at home. Listen to their suggestions and concerns and respond appropriately.
Dr. R.J. (Ron) Wasik, PhD, MBA, CFS, is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Food in Canada.