ROSEMONT, IL — The opening session today of the virtual Food Safety Summit covered what a range of sectors did in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Epidemiology, regulatory, distribution, manufacturing, foodservice and retail sectors were represented.

Lee-Ann Jaykus, from North Carolina State University, spoke about the SARS-COV 2 virus in general, giving attendees the background and science  on the cause of the ongoing pandemic.

Jaykus said outbreaks have occurred in restaurants, at meat packing and processing plants and other manufacturing sites. Common themes include indoor settings, close face-to-face and extended contact; and poor ventilation in some cases.

On survivability, she said the big take home messages are it depends on the surface, the amount of organic matter associated with the virus and environmental condition.

“This virus can persist on surfaces for two days or it might be as long as a week, however, not as long as viruses like norovirus which can persist on surfaces for months. This surface persistence is driving the move to frequent disinfection. The virus is extremely sensitive to ultra violet light. It will only be stable for a few minutes in high UV concentration. In terms of disinfection, the ones that have been vetted scientifically are 1,000 parts per million chlorine and 0.5 percent hydrogen peroxide for surface disinfection.”

Jaykus cited CDC, FDA, USDA, WHO and ICMSF statements saying there is no compelling evidence to date that SARS-COV 2 is transmitted by contaminated foods.

Retailer viewpoint
Glenn Stolowski, manager of retail quality assurance from HEB, spoke about pandemic response from a retailers perspective.

“You have to ensure your supply chain will be able to keep up with demand on key items during a pandemic. You’ll probably need multiple back up suppliers on those key items. Should you increase orders and warehouse inventory on those items. Do you have an emergency warehouse? From a regulatory perspective, if your stores are across multiple states and cities how will you comply with fragmented requirements and interpretations.”

Speakers during the opening session

Stolowski said having a written emergency response plan for pandemics is very important.

“It is important to have all of the key stakeholders involved in developing the plan. Operations, quality assurance, human resources, legal, security and loss prevention, supply chain, procurement, communications and public affairs are all key for us with our plan,” he said.

“What are the key product categories during a pandemic? Nobody could have foreseen bath tissue being such a critical category or dry yeast. How do you anticipate demand shifts and still provide product to the consumer? One option is to reduce assortment and get suppliers to increase production on those limited offerings and we did that with many of our suppliers.”

In Texas, it was helpful to have a printed copy of the action plan available at each store when the local health departments came for a visit, said Stolowski.

“We were able to show them our action plans and they were able to see it being performed. Reviewing the plans with health departments in advance can help you navigate any requirements open to interpretation. We also created checklists and audits to ensure the action plan was consistently executed.”

Stolowski said there had been many adjustments to the plan since March.

“During the peak of the pandemic in March and April we had to reduce hours of operation so that our supply chain and stockers had enough time to replenish shelves. We recently expanded back close to normal hours. Some of these changes may end up being permanent. I could see cart sanitization, hand sanitizer dispensation at store entrances and doing wipe downs of touch points becoming permanent changes.”

Foodservice angle
Jorge Hernandez, vice president of quality assurance at The Wendy’s Co., said the pandemic has been extremely disruptive to the foodservice industry.

“The pandemic is so disruptive and new, so no emergency plan could prepare us for it. We don’t have a playbook that tells us what to do. At the beginning of this we did not know enough about the spread, controls or actions you need to take. So it became critical that the team gelled to digest information available at the time and pivot into a response to protect employees, customers and the business,” he said.

However, there may be opportunities after the second half of the same problem, according to Hernandez.

“Is this the new normal I don’t know but I know when we come out of this event we will be very different than when we started. Things will remain beyond the pandemic that can make us safer, faster, more focused and in some cases can increase profitability for the long term.”

A tipping point for B2B firm
Joan Menke-Schaenzer, chief quality officer at Van Drunen Farms, said in the early days of the pandemic, the firm had a crisis management plan but it did not include how to respond to such an incident.

“There were unclear roles and responsibilities. We didn’t know who was on first and who was on second. The one principle we rallied around was how to keep employees safe each and every day. We created a command center: a small team of five people organized to be hub of information. We connected with a team of 25 others to cascade information down. We met daily to review what is happening internally and externally.”

Menke-Schaenzer said there was a tipping point for the company.

“As we were getting multiple positives in multiple plants which was prompting us to have to shut down lines and plants, we decided to test all onsite employees around Memorial Day. Understanding there would be asymptomatic folks and it was a (only) point in time but we needed to have that fundamental baseline . . . so we could know how to start up our plants.”

Public health system not designed to deal with such a crisis
Steve Mandernach, executive director at the Association of Food and Drug Officials, said COVID-19 had an unprecedented level of impact and it happened quite quickly.

“We had not experienced anything of this magnitude in public health for around 100 years. We learned very quickly we did not have enough information available. Our public health system is built for the average event,” Mandernach said. “It is not built for the 100 year event.”

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control was doing virtual food safety checks by the end of March and as of a month ago had completed 10,000 such verifications across the state, according to Mandernach.

He said there was a lack of clear, timely information from federal agencies such as FDA, CDC and OSHA. Insufficient expertise in areas such as retail foods or foodservice and a lack of coordination across the country and regularly between public health and food safety staff.

Some of the things that had worked, according to Mandernach, included industry collaboration with each other and trade associations to put together best practices, building of informal networks to get feedback and virtual inspections and reviews, such as pre-opening checks focussing on policy review that worked and will be continuing to increase efficiency.

However, he said other things didn’t work, such as the inability for federal agencies to get out guidance in a clear and timely manner, a lack of consistency between jurisdictions and politics determining public health policy.

The Food Safety Summit began virtually today and runs through Thursday. Registered attendees can explore, learn, and interact with other participants by logging into the virtual atmosphere. Click here to register and gain access.

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