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COVID-19 & Food Safety: Q&A from Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Virtual Town Hall

 

As the food industry continues to react in the wake of COVID-19, major U.S. produce associations have kept both the public and industry aware of the evolving status of produce production, logistics, safety and regulatory requirements.

As an industry provider of food safety solutions, ScanTech Sciences continues to engage with produce associations as the state of the industry changes. Below is a summary of an interview by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) between Dr. Juan Leon (Emory University, Food Virologist) and Dr. Don Shaffner (Rutgers University, Food Scientist). This was part of PMA’s Virtual Town Hall and discusses food safety implications.

The interview, summarized by ScanTech Sciences below, is intended to highlight food safety topics related to our industry, if you’re interested in reviewing the full version please click here.

 

Can the coronavirus transmit through food?

The current guidance from global and federal agencies is that the virus does not transmit through food. This was also backed by Dr. Leon who studies food viruses such as Hep A. and Norovirus. The interview stated that there is no evidence of the virus spreading through food or food packaging, meaning that it is safe to buy and eat food without worrying of contracting the virus. This continues to be true today.

 

Is there a shortage of food?

You may have noticed empty shelves at retail for commodities such as milk, eggs, water, etc. However, the supply chain remains strong and there has been no impact on providing food, apart from retail. Though, the empty shelves have resulted mostly of unprecedented demand due to consumer “panic buying,” but rest assured there is no impact on our ability to produce food today. Grocery items that were not available a couple weeks ago are starting to re-merge in stores.

 

Are the current sanitary practices in food facilities enough to protect against the coronavirus?

This was answered in 2 parts by both Dr. Leon and Dr. Shaffner, in summary:

Part 1 discusses food produced within the facility. Although this virus is new and still being studied, the food industry has been combating many different human pathogenic microorganisms for a long time to prevent outbreaks. This has resulted in the production of many different food grade sanitation chemicals which disinfect and sanitize - and may not be as common as conventional sanitizers such as chlorine-based products. An example of this is at ScanTech Sciences, where we are using silver dihydrogen citrate as a disinfectant (one of the approved EPA chemicals that is effective against the coronavirus). This chemical not only treats and disinfects at the time of application, but also contains residual properties that will keep killing even after the disinfectant is applied on the surface. This is true as well for most of the Quat-based sanitizers which are common in the food industry today. As of now, the recommendation from the CDC for food facilities is to maintain routine sanitation schedules without a need to make changes.

Part 2 discusses employees working within in food facilities. There has been guidance by different regulatory agencies specifically for food facilities on what actions they can take to be proactive and incentivize a healthy and safe work environment. This includes things such as distancing employees where possible, frequent handwashing and using gloves where appropriate, and offer employees paid leave should they experience any flu like symptoms.

 

If an employee in a food facility tests positive for coronavirus, will food produced during the time the employee was working get recalled?

This ties back to the first point. There is no evidence today to suggest that the virus can be transmitted through food, therefore it is safe to assume that all food produced today can be consumed without worry of contracting the virus. Unlike other gastrointestinal viruses such as Hep. A and Norovirus, which are known to be transmitted through food, this is a unique virus that attacks the respiratory system where the primary method of travel is from person-to-person.

 

Are there still routine inspections in food facilities being conducted by the FDA?

The FDA has stopped doing most “routine” inspections but is still performing them for high-risk commodities. The FDA does contract much of its inspections to state health agencies. Some states are continuing to perform inspections while others are not. For 3rd party certifications, there are still some contractors that are performing the annual audits.

 

Can or should I wash my produce with soap?

Absolutely not, as soaps are made in different ways with various ingredients. Their properties are meant to remove as much dirt and grime as possible through chemistry. They may contain a chemical that is not safe for consumption and would be very dangerous to human health. During the interview, an example was provided of a consumer that cleaned an apple with a Lysol wipe. Lysol wipes use a Quat-based sanitizer which are not safe to eat, but if used for its intended purpose (surface cleaning) it works great. Washing produce under running tap water for 30 seconds is a great method to clean your produce.

 

Will “sanitizing” my groceries after getting home keep me safer?

Per the interview, they go on to explain that this is unnecessary. Dr. Shaffner talks about the highest risk/exposure during your time in the grocery store. He advises that you prepare with a shopping list and get in and out as efficiently as possible. In the event you’re asymptomatic, apply hand sanitizer when you arrive as it may prevent from spreading the virus. Also apply hand sanitizer when you depart, in the event touched a surface that may have been contaminated while at the store.