Americans shouldn’t worry about the safety of their food during the coronavirus outbreak. They should watch the FDA website’s FAQ section for up-to-the-minute information, according to agency officials who spoke today.
Offering more generalities than specifics, three top administrators spoke to “stakeholders” during a half-hour session this afternoon “to discuss food safety and food supply questions related to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” The moderator stressed that the conference call was not a media briefing and none of the questions from the audience were from news organizations.
Other topics discussed included postponing some food safety inspections and working with other departments on shortages of hand sanitizers and other supplies.
Two of the speakers specifically said there has been no evidence to date that the virus is foodborne or transmitted by food packaging. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously reported that COVID-19 can live on cardboard for hours and on hard surfaces such as stainless steel and plastic for up to three days.
“This is not a foodborne gastrointestinal virus,” said Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner, Office of Food Policy and Response.
The deputy commissioner stressed that person-to-person transmission is the main route for the virus. He also said people can contract coronavirus by touching frequently touched surfaces and then touching their faces.
The top food safety administrator at the FDA, Yiannas, also repeatedly said there is no shortage of food in the United States and that the farm-to-fork supply system is working around the clock to stock grocery stores. Yiannas said he is on the White House team that is watching for supply chain issues.
Yiannas did not say everything is completely under control in the food industry or in government.
“There is more we can do and more we will do together,” Yiannas said.
Director of CFSAN
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Repeating several of the points Yiannas mentioned, CFSAN Director Mayne stressed there is no evidence that the coronavirus is foodborne, which is unlike norovirus and other gastrointestinal foodborne illnesses. She also repeated that person-to-person contact is the most likely and most frequent mode of transmission for COVID-19, which is airborne.
However, Mayne also stressed that the virus can survive on hard surfaces for long periods of time. Therefore, she said it is critical for foodservice operators to make sure their employees are properly and frequently cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and other things and also following proper handwashing and glove use.
A shortage of hand sanitizer has Mayne and part of the CFSAN team working with FDA staff on resolving that problem, the director said.
They are also working on a shortage of thermometers. Mayne addressed the thermometer issue in response to a question from a call participant. The caller said some localities are requiring restaurants to check their employees’ temperatures at the beginning of their shifts. But, public health officials don’t know how to get more thermometers.
Mayne said the businesses should continue to work with local and state public health officials. She also encouraged all callers to watch the FAQ section of the FDA website. Supply line questions should be directed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), she said.
Businesses should also follow all state and local food safety regulations, which local and state authorities should be enforcing.
She again stressed that the most up-to-date information on virtually all of the FDA’s work on the coronavirus and related matters is on the agency’s FAQ page.
FDA Assistant Commissioner for Human and Animal Food Operations
Office of Regulatory Affairs
One area of the supply chain that is being closely watched is how different jurisdictional travel restrictions are impacting the movement of food, according to Assistant Commissioner Rogers.
Other links in the supply chain that are impacted by changes related to the virus outbreak include food safety inspections.
All routine domestic inspections that are not mission-critical will be postponed until further notice. Such inspections are generally done every 3 to 5 years, depending on several factors involved with each food company. The FDA is also postponing most foreign facility inspections at this time, partly because of travel restrictions.
Rogers said “mission-critical” situations include but are not limited to Class 1 recalls; foodborne illness outbreaks; and a specific link to the coronavirus.
A condition of mission-critical inspections, Rogers said, is the safety of inspection personnel. If their safety cannot be guaranteed the inspection will not be conducted. He did not say what action might be taken in lieu of inspections in such situations.
Recalls and regular business
Industry callers today had some operational questions for the FDA panel, most of which CFSAN’s Mayne answered.
One food producer asked if there would be mandatory product holds if an employee at a food facility tested positive for the virus. Mayne said no such product holds are in place. She also said that there will not be mandatory recalls if a food worker tests positive.
A food manufacturer asked whether the entire food industry could expect to continue with business as usual under the government designation as a “critical sector.”
Mayne said the food industry is absolutely considered a critical sector under Homeland Security laws.
Editor’s note: The conference call was recorded and, according to the FDA, will be posted online.