Consumer Reports Tuesday sent out some suggestions for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to ensure the safety and availability of meat, poultry and other food products during the COVID-19 pandemic.
CR’s sent the advice to FSIS just as a number of meat and poultry processing plant employees reported having symptoms or testing positive for the virus. Among these were a Perdue Farms poultry plant in Perry, GA; a Sanderson Farms poultry facility in McComb, MS; and the Smithfield Foods Inc.’s John Morrell pork plant in Sioux Falls, SD. Also, JBS USA cut back production at its Souderton, PA beef plant because several managers were experiencing the flu-like symptoms.
The public advocacy group offered its ideas in a letter to Mindy Brashears, USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. Brian Ronholm, CR’s food policy director, discussed the responsibilities of the Agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
“We write to you to address a number of critical issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ronholm wrote. “As you know, there is pressure across the food supply chain to ensure the availability and affordability of food and there is a risk that the absence of an adequate level of personnel could impact food safety and supply.”
Ronholm was one of two deputy undersecretaries for food safety at USDA during the Obama administration. The FSIS provides continuous inspection services at about 6,200 meat, poultry and some egg facilities across the country.
“As you consider the best approaches to resolve issues that have arisen during the pandemic ensure the safety and availability of products regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service,” Ronholm continued.
The non-profit group urged the government take the following actions:
- Provide Transparency: Report/publicize the number of FSIS inspection personnel testing positive and/or becoming ill with COVID-19 as they occur.
- Ensure food inspectors and establishment employees are safe. Determine whether an establishment’s Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP) are adequate to respond to the pandemic and protect the safety of inspectors and industry personnel. If the SSOP is determined to be inadequate, work with the establishment to implement corrective actions.
- Emphasize Monitoring of Establishment Prevention Plans: Closely monitor an establishment’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans to ensure compliance. If staffing levels at establishments become impacted by the pandemic, it becomes critical to ensure it does not impact compliance with SSOP and HACCP.
- Dedicate New Resources to Food Safety: Ensure that the additional funding FSIS receives by Congress for COVID-19 response is allocated toward inspection and food safety related tasks.
Consumer Reports, formerly known as the Consumers Union, is a U.S. nonprofit organization that does independent product testing, investigations, consumer-oriented research, public education, and consumer advocacy.
The emergency $2 trillion Congress passed a few days ago includes billions for various USDA programs, but only $33 million for FSIS to hire temporary and part-time inspection personnel.
Here’s how FSIS has responded up until now to some “common questions” about food safety and the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Is FSIS is requesting that plants report to FSIS if employees become ill with COVID-19? Will the agency reciprocate? In the event of a diagnosed COVID-19 illness, FSIS says it will follow and is encouraging establishments to follow the recommendations of local public health authorities regarding notification of potential contacts. The FSIS says it will keep the lines of communication open so its’ staff can address the evolving situation.
- Have any of FSIS’ audits of foreign counties — or foreign audits for the U.S. — food safety systems been delayed due to COIVD-19? As USDA’s public health agency, the Food Safety and Inspection Service is committed to ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of all imported meat, poultry, and processed egg products for American families. For the safety of its’ auditors, FSIS does not provide the dates when the auditors are scheduled to conduct in-country equivalence audits in a foreign country. FSIS has delayed both U.S. and foreign country audits in accordance with the State Department’s guidance. FSIS continues to monitor the situation and will evaluate the feasibility of its upcoming audits as the situation evolves, including reviewing State Department guidance on foreign travel.
- How will FSIS-regulated establishments handle cleanup if cases have been identified at the facility? Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate disinfectant product. All FSIS-regulated establishments are required to have approved Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (Sanitation SOPs), which are written procedures that an establishment develops and implements to prevent direct contamination or adulteration of product. It is the establishment’s responsibility to implement the procedures as written in the Sanitation SOPs. The establishment must maintain daily records sufficient to document the implementation and monitoring of the Sanitation SOPs and any corrective action taken. FSIS verifies that regulated establishments adhere to the procedures in place. The same sanitary procedures that establishments are already following to protect food safety will also help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. The Environmental Protection Agency has published a list of disinfectants that have qualified under EPA’s emerging viral pathogen program for use against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
- Is FSIS requesting/requiring their employees to report if they have been to a Level 3 country (Level 1 or 2)? FSIS employees will be following the CDC’s and State Department’s recommendations for travel.
- Can a county health department or state government shut down an FSIS-regulated establishment? Yes, and FSIS will follow state and local health department decisions.
- Is FSIS requesting that plants report to FSIS if employees become ill with COVID-19? Will the agency reciprocate? In the event of a diagnosed COVID-19 illness, FSIS will follow and is encouraging establishments to follow the recommendations of local public health authorities regarding notification of potential contacts. FSIS will keep the lines of communication open so we can address the evolving situation.
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