A critical part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s mission is safeguarding the human and animal food supply, helping to ensure that our food is not contaminated at any point during its journey along the supply chain.
COVID-19 is a new frontier for all of us as we deal with the realities of a pandemic and the impact it is having on our lives, on our families, our communities, and on our work. The FDA is committed to protecting the health of the American people, and to facing any challenges in food safety and access that arise during this public health emergency. That has never been more true than now.
So, let me assure you first that 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.
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.
For these reasons, we do not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or withdrawn from the market for reasons related to the outbreak, even if a person who works in a human or animal food facility (e.g. a food packager) is confirmed to be positive for the COVID-19 virus.
No current disruptions in the supply chain
There are currently no nationwide shortages of food, despite localized reports of shortages. Speaking personally, I’ve had the same experience that many other consumers have had of going to my neighborhood grocery store and seeing shelves empty of certain items. But based on our ongoing communication with industry, we understand this is largely an issue of unprecedented demand – not a lack of capacity to produce, process and deliver – and manufacturers and retailers alike are working around the clock to replenish shelves.
Food production and manufacturing – for both people and animals – are dispersed throughout the U.S. and there are currently no widespread disruptions reported in the supply chain.
Overall, retail supply chains remain strong, and the FDA is working with food manufacturers and grocery stores to closely monitor the human food supply chain for any shortages. The agency is in close contact with industry and its trade associations, which are in touch with their members about supply chain issues.
The same is true for animal food. The FDA is monitoring the availability of foods for livestock and pets. There are no shortages, and no current disruptions in the pet and livestock food supply chain.
Protecting government and industry workers
We have an unwavering commitment to protecting the health of FDA, state, and local personnel on the front lines of food safety as well as the health of the workers on farms and in human and animal food facilities all over the nation who play critical roles in helping to feed Americans and our animals every day.
We’ve taken steps to help reduce the risk of infection for FDA investigators and state inspectors in ways that won’t interrupt the process of how safe foods reach the market. Specifically, we have postponed routine surveillance inspections of domestic human and animal food facilities and farms out of concern for the health and well-being of FDA investigators and state inspectors and to respect industry safety concerns about visitors. We will, however, continue to inspect “for cause” when a potential threat to public health (human or animal) is identified.
As FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn announced last week, we have also postponed most foreign inspections through April 2020 because of restrictions on travel and concerns about the safety of our investigators. We have other tools and authorities to help ensure the safety of imported foods, including inspections at the ports of entry and the use of PREDICT, our risk-based import screening tool to focus our examinations and sample collections.
We have also issued guidance on the FDA’s intention to temporarily not enforce onsite audit requirements for supplier verification under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These audits are designed to confirm compliance with safety standards but travel restrictions will likely prevent receiving facilities and importers from obtaining them.
For verification that would include a domestic or foreign onsite audit, facilities are expected to temporarily select an alternative way to verify compliance with food safety standards, such as sampling and testing, or food safety records review.
Regulations require actions to control risks for workers in food facilities
We care about workers in human and animal food facilities – their risk of infection and problems they may have getting to and from work with curfews and quarantines in certain places. Some protections live in the FSMA requirements that human food facilities have food safety plans to control risks associated with workers who are ill, regardless of the type of virus or bacteria. There are also requirements for human food facilities to maintain clean and sanitized facilities and food contact surfaces. Food-service workers also must continue to practice frequent hand washing and glove changes before and after preparing food. The animal food regulations also include requirements for cleanliness of the facility and personal cleanliness of employees.
If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform workers of their possible exposure while maintaining confidentiality. Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance: What to do if you are sick with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Employers should consult with their local health department for additional guidance.
If you have questions
The FDA’s website, www.fda.gov/coronavirus, has a wealth of information on the most recent developments in areas that include testing and therapeutics, plus links to related information provided by other government agencies.
We have posted a new set of frequently asked questions at fda.gov/food and will be updating often. Also, questions can be submitted directly to the FDA via www.fda.gov/FCIC (for human food) and AskCVM@fda.hhs.gov (for animal food) and we will respond as quickly as possible.
If food facilities are experiencing issues regarding the supply chain, delivery of goods, or business continuity, please contact the FEMA National Business Emergency Operations Center at NBEOC@fema.dhs.gov. This is a 24/7 operation and they can assist in directing inquiries to the proper contact.
The strength of partnerships
Addressing this crisis is a team effort and it involves an all-of-government approach and public-private collaboration. I am part of a White House-level Coordinating Committee on the supply chain, and I can assure you that this group has broad representation from all components of the federal government that need to be in close coordination in monitoring the supply of human and animal foods. We are working with the food industry, and our state, local, and international regulatory partners to monitor and mitigate any impact on food safety and food access for the American public.
The FDA is also working with our partners to address reported challenges associated with quarantines and travel restrictions that may be impeding food workers’ ability to continue to work and transport product. This includes working with local, state and federal officials, and industry, to help ensure that food workers can get to and from their jobs in communities where curfews and shelter-in-place directives are enforced.
This is especially important in light of a guidance issued by Department of Homeland Security on March 19 in which workers in the food and agriculture sector – including those working in agricultural production and food processing of both human and animal food, distribution, retail and food service, and allied industries – are named as essential critical infrastructure workers who are vital to community continuity and resilience.
Consumers can be confident in the safety of their food. We will continue our efforts to make sure that they have access to the foods they need for themselves, their families (including their pets), and the animals our farmers raise.
Food producers of all kinds and all sizes should know that the FDA stands shoulder to shoulder with them throughout this crisis to ensure that food is safe and available for all Americans. And that we all will get through this, together.
About the author: Frank Yiannas is the deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a position he assumed in December of 2018. He is the principal advisor to the FDA commissioner in the development and execution of policies related to food safety, including implementation of the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). His responsibilities include food safety priorities such as outbreak response, traceback investigations, product recall activities, and supply chain innovation. Before joining the FDA, Yiannas was vice president of food safety at Walmart. Yiannas is a past president of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) and recipient of the 2007 NSF Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Food Safety. He is also the recipient of the Collaboration Award by FDA in 2008 and he was named the 2015 Industry Professional Food Safety Hero Award by STOP Foodborne Illness, a consumer advocacy group.
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