The Coronavirus pandemic is more of a food security and trade problem than a food safety issue, according to experts.

The “COVID-19 & Food Safety Global Summit” was organized by the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). David Tharp, executive director of IAFP, and Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark LLP PS, welcomed attendees from around the world to the webinar.

The first session involved a global perspective followed by regional specific presentations from Europe, the United States and China.

Markus Lipp, head of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Safety and Quality Unit, said there has been no observation of transmission of COVID-19 through food.

“COVID-19 is not considered to be a food safety issue. What we have seen is trade disturbances through import and export blocks by various countries. There are a number of other events that threaten food security and our supply chains.”

Unlike any other crisis
Lipp said there have been coronavirus cases in a range of settings including food workers in informal markets and meat packing plants in the U.S. and Germany. Because these people are ill and have to stay home, this is a reason for disruption of food supply chains.

Markus Lipp

“The end of current social protection plans and increased social assistance programs will put a huge strain on the budgets of countries around the world. Rising unemployment, income loss and rising food costs will jeopardize access in the developing and developed countries,” he said.

“The current situation is unlike any other food or health crisis in modern times as simultaneously the supply and demand part of the economy received shocks that were global in nature. These are challenging times. Our food security is at risk for people in developed and developing countries, however there is a larger impact on developing countries. We need to work together to make sure food security will remain for everybody.”

In June, the World Bank estimated COVID-19 could push anywhere from 71 million to 100 million people into extreme poverty in 2020. The United Nations predicted 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the crisis. The World Trade Organization (WTO) estimated in April that world merchandise trade in 2020 could fall by as much as 32 percent.

Risk-based controls and FDA’s response
Gudrun Gallhoff, Minister Counsellor for health and food safety, Delegation of the European Union to China, said goods, packages and other surfaces have not shown to be a particular risk of COVID-19.

“A risk-based approach allocates resources to high risk and maximum impact activities. This is important with COVID-19 as you have to balance new risks with existing ones. This includes rearranging processes or taking special measures if the disease is spreading as people cannot work in the normal way.”

Gudrun Gallhoff

Gallhoff said the biggest risk to food safety for COVID-19 is the neglect of planned control activities.

“While you have to always prioritize food safety controls you must appreciate you cannot inspect in the same way. Many of us are doing inspections via audio and you have to adapt your processes accordingly. There might be new risks arising through process modifications and substitution of ingredients.”

Gallhoff said this may compromise food security as certain foods and ingredients are not there anymore.

“Supply chains are blocked. In Europe we had this problem particularly in the beginning of COVID-19. Just adding other certification requirements or stopping certain products at the border is not the way of dealing with it. So we have to work in a flexible manner keeping the well-established processes we had before as far as we can but introducing new ways of dealing with the challenge by reacting on the knowledge we get about the disease and about the changed resources.”

Communication is also a challenge, according to Gallhoff.

“We have to introduce transparency of why certain methods are taken and what reasons are behind them to convince people that things have to be done this way under the current circumstances. It is also important to document the changed ways to learn, so that one sees a measure was successful or it wasn’t successful and you have to change it again. We learn every day new information about how the virus transmits, we hope to learn where it comes from and then we can prevent pandemics in the future with these insights.”

LeeAnne Jackson

LeeAnne Jackson, CFSAN Food Lead – 2019 novel coronavirus FDA incident management group, said the pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for the agency.

“Unprecedented consumer demand and changes in distribution patterns have led to temporary spot shortages of certain commodities. The temporary closure of restaurants, schools, and entertainment venues left many food producers without their normal paths to the marketplace resulting in a surplus of food that needed to be diverted to grocery and retail settings,” she said.

“During our response to the pandemic one of the lessons we’ve learned is a crisis of such unprecedented magnitude requires federal, state and local governments, the food industry and academia working together. We are encouraged to see that for the most part food facilities and farms under FDA’s jurisdiction continue to operate and we do not anticipate the Defense Production Act authority will need to be invoked.”

In March, FDA temporarily postponed routine on-site surveillance inspections.

“We’ve continued to conduct mission critical inspections when there has been a potential risk to public health. We’ve also been working to determine the best way and most appropriate time to resume safe domestic inspections and other associated activities by FDA staff,” said Jackson.

Market outbreak in China
Chen Junshi, chief scientific advisor at the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, discussed a COVID-19 outbreak at Xinfadi agricultural market which involved 368 people.

“There are two possible sources of transmission. One is from people to people and the other is from food to people. We only know it is not from local people based on DNA sequencing of the virus. The other possible source is food to person transmission because there were multiple positive samples in this market including the chopping board for salmon, raw food samples including meat and environmental samples. Investigations are still going on, there is no direct evidence of either possible source.”

The impact involved closure of Xinfadi market and all seafood and meat being destroyed. Sale of salmon and other seafood by supermarkets and restaurants in Beijing was suspended while sampling and testing on imported seafood and meat began. Confusing media reports led to consumer concern about buying, cooking and eating seafood. Nucleic acid positive samples from an Ecuador white shrimp package added to the weight of speculation, said Chen.

He said effective communications from the beginning of any crisis is needed and regulatory control measures should be science-based.

“Further research is needed to determine whether there are live SARS-CoV-2 virus in nucleic acid positive food samples as well as the amount of live virus on the contaminated food to establish the relationship between the contaminated food and disease.”

Session two of the event featured Donald Schaffner, Ben Chapman and Lawrence Goodridge while John Donaghy, Michelle Danyluk, Ruth Petran, Sharon Brunelle and Kalmia E. Kniel took part in the third panel.

The summit was partially sponsored by Seattle law firm Marler Clark LLP. Founding partner Bill Marler is publisher of Food Safety News.

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