Opinion

The foodservice industry is remarkable for many reasons, the hard work, the long hours, the fierce competition, and the sheer number of operations. Making a go of a restaurant has many challenges; around 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year. And nearly 80 percent shutter before their fifth anniversary. This is unfortunately the result of the difficulties in managing labor, controlling food costs, and low profit margins, and it seems you have to be just plain lucky — or have incredible food, a very solid business model, excellent management and effective marketing.

Consider also that foodservice is a high-risk enterprise, and those that get in trouble with foodborne illness, sanitation issues, or a customer injury, face liability, as well as the loss of reputation and the confidence of customers.

With these problems as a backdrop, COVID-19 might just be the last straw for many operations, which is tragic, given that so many workers depend on the industry for a livelihood, and consumers may no longer be able to enjoy the convenience and the wide variety of choices they have come to expect.

The FDA has recently published “Best Practices for Re-Opening Retail Food Establishments During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” This is helpful, and the industry has been expecting to receive such guidance. Now it falls on the local and state health departments to promulgate these standards into regulations and start enforcement.

The USFDA Food Code, adopted by most health departments, already has numerous provisions for communicable disease controls, and the provisions for exclusion or restriction of ill workers, sanitation and personal hygiene should be familiar concepts.

The challenge will be to translate what is known to be effective against the foodborne microorganisms in the “back of the house” into COVID-19 preventive measures in the “front of the house.” Customers and their habits cannot be controlled by the operator in the same way as worker practices, so a paradigm shift needs to take place.

I do not believe anyone has at this time a perfect answer to airborne transmission of COVID-19 in a restaurant, and therefore it is likely that we are going to see localized outbreaks with restaurants as a common exposure. With that will come exposure of the business to legal liability.

There is proposed federal legislation at this time to address the potential business risk that will come from lawsuits and COVID-19; but at the same time, we have FDA informing us of the best practices to reopen a restaurant. It is very likely that the local health departments will soon be tasked with regulation, inspection and investigation of restaurant related COVID-19 clusters. The public can be expected to file complaints, especially if they have observed a breakdown in protocols; if an outbreak occurs, the results could be devastating for an entire brand. 

In light of the public health and business risks, restaurant and bar operators must establish due diligence and implement the guidance we now have. The following check list is adapted from the afore mentioned FDA best practices guidance, with some additional recommendations:    

  1. Inform employees that if they have tested positive for COVID-19, or have been in contact with a known positive case, that they must disclose this information immediately to management.
  2. Exclude all employees exhibiting any symptom of communicable disease while on the job.
  3. Remind employees not come to work when ill for any reason, but specifically if they have coughing, shortness of breath, and/or fever, and report such symptoms in themselves, family members, and close contacts.
  4. Maintain a sick-log and watch for an uptick in employees calling in ill. Contact the health department if you suspect an outbreak is occurring.
  5. Provide a written policy describing return to work procedures following the FDA guidance.
  6. Post the following statement at the guest entrance “DO NOT ENTER if you are known to be positive for COVID-19 or have a cough, shortness of breath or fever.
  7. Maintain a 6-foot distance between guests in seating areas, waiting areas, check out areas, or between guests on lines awaiting entry.
  8. Place hand sanitizer stations at the guest entrances and at bathrooms, monitor guest behavior and ensure the sanitizers are being used.
  9. Remove all common items from tables, including condiments and menus. 
  10. Discontinue salad bars and buffet type self-service.
  11. Maintain ware-washing equipment, proper wash temperatures and sanitizer concentrations.
  12. All employees in contact with guests should wear a mask or other facial covering.
  13. Bussers and others handling or cleaning used utensils or guest tables should be wearing sanitary gloves. The gloves need to changed frequently, but especially between handling soiled items and serving food.
  14. Perform daily temperature checks of employees at the start of each meal period. Any employees with elevated temperatures should be excluded.
  15. Observe guests for excessive coughing or sneezing, it may be necessary to ask such guests to leave the premises.
  16. Maintain a high level of sanitation in restrooms, with hourly cleaning and sanitizing of fixtures and common touch points.
  17. Ensure bathroom hand sinks are stocked with soap, warm water, paper towels or other approved hand drying method.
  18. Use approved hard surface sanitizers following label directions, and clean and sanitize guests’ tables, chairs, and cushions between guests.
  19. Clean and sanitize guest area floors nightly. 

We should recognize that especially in the beginning, implementing all of the preventive measures for COVID-19 may be difficult, or even impossible for some establishments; however, survival chances are better for those that are able restore public confidence in dining at their establishment. The public is expecting to see an obvious commitment by restaurants to their health and safety, and the best of the industry will step up to the plate. 

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Food authenticity experts have said an increase in food fraud is inevitable because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Food Authenticity Network Advisory Board had a meeting earlier this month and, given the disruption to global supply chains caused by COVID-19 and the diminished level of surveillance, they reported they believes a rise in food fraud is likely.

Multiple packages with counterfeit food supplements were seized during a recent investigation in the EU, according to Europol. The parcels came from Brazil, China and Hong Kong, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. They were falsely declared as confectionery or a specific or generically-named dietary supplement.

The Food Authenticity Network has launched a resource base for food fraud on its website pulling together global information to help combat threats to the supply chain because of the global pandemic.

Pulling resources together
Selvarani Elahi, executive director of the Food Authenticity Network, said by sharing best practices and working together, the impact of food fraud can be minimized.

“The food authenticity website is like a signpost to other resources but it was spread in lots of different places in the network so now on this page you will find direct links. The information page is there and it will be updated if we add anything else and people can contact us if they have a resource they want listed. It will stay there as a resource, it is called COVID-19 because that is the issue at the moment, but these things are equally applicable anytime you have a major disruption to the food supply chain,” she told Food Safety News.

“The U.K. government set this up but now we are working with the food industry and other governments so they can add country specific pages on the website without building their own system. There is a lot of evidence to show that food safety and fraud are interlinked. Usually a lot of food fraud issues become food safety issues because if they are willing to perpetrate fraud they don’t really care about the safety of the food or the ingredients they are putting in.”

The Food Authenticity Network was set-up in July 2015 by the U.K. government after a recommendation in the “Elliott Review.” It now has more than 1,500 members from 69 countries.

The network is an open access website with information on food authenticity testing, food fraud mitigation, and supply chain integrity. It is led by LGC and was set-up with funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. It is currently supported with public-private partnership funding from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, McCormick and Co., LGC Standards, and the Institute of Food Science & Technology.

Elahi said dealing with fraud when it happens is one thing but most people want to prevent it in the first place so a big focus is the food fraud mitigation guidance.

“The resource is for businesses and people who are looking at their food supply chain, so brokers, agents and anybody that deals with food transactions and has a supply chain to protect,” Elahi said. “There are supply chain traceability systems but also databases that are historic records on food fraud per commodity. Regulators also need to be aware of the tools that industry are using.”

How to measure food fraud levels
A recent European Commission analysis showed a 20 percent increase in reports of food fraud in Europe in 2019. Whether that means people are looking more or there is more fraud is not known but there has to be such a report for fraud to be measured, said Elahi.

“The feeling the board got was multi-faceted. There is limited surveillance going on at the moment with all local authority trading standards and environmental health officers working from home or furloughed. They can’t physically go in and take samples so there is little enforcement going on,” she said.

“It’s hard to put numbers on it but if you look at the combination of factors there is a surplus of goods in some areas and shortages and disruption in others and people are buying from different sources to bridge that gap. The opportunity is definitely there because the demand is there.”

Sterling Crew, chair of the network’s Advisory Board, said the security of the global food supply chain has been disrupted by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, opening up new opportunities for unscrupulous food fraudsters.

“The prevention of this food fraud during the pandemic is paramount to ensure we protect the trust of our consumers and to maintain safe, fair, and sustainable business practices,” he said.

The EU Food Fraud Network and Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System report for 2019 showed 292 requests compared to 234 in 2018. Germany created the most with 76, followed by France with 38, and Belgium with 26. The Commission was responsible for 70 requests.

Fats and oils became the top category based on number of requests placing olive oil as the most notified product. The fish product category was second followed by meat products other than poultry. The main non-compliance was mislabeling which accounted for 47.3 percent of the 431 violations reported in the system.

Return to normal after pandemic?
It is hard to know if shorter and local supply chains popular during the pandemic will continue, said Elahi.

“After horsemeat in 2013 everyone was swearing they were going to buy British, locally and go to farmers markets but it lasted for about a month. As soon as the weather got better and barbecues were out again, everyone went back to supermarkets and the same old buying patterns,” she said.

“As much as I would love to believe everyone is going to fundamentally change because of COVID-19 I don’t see it. No doubt it has made people think and we may purchase in a slightly more responsible manner but I think convenience and the modern lifestyle will still be a factor. We also don’t produce enough food to supply the country so we have to import and need global supply chains. We want to eat avocados every day of the year so there is consumer demand and I don’t think that is going away.”

Guidance from the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that in the rush to identify new suppliers because of short supply or unavailability, businesses may focus less attention on supply chain integrity which provides opportunities for food fraud.

As authorities temporarily reduce food controls, inspections and food sampling, fraudsters may take advantage. There is also likely to be fewer private sector audits and checks of certification and accreditation schemes. Food businesses should also consider introducing risk-based vulnerability assessment systems to mitigate against food fraud.

An increasing number of consumers are turning to e-commerce and online food retail shopping. Many people are now buying food online from sites that have sprung up since the pandemic began. The risk of food fraud in the e-commerce sector can be high, according to the guidance. The document advised authorities to strengthen food controls and oversight of internet sales to protect consumers from misleading e-commerce practices.

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Opinion.

If anything should restore the confidence of the American people in our governmental agencies and institutions, it is the leadership of our medical and public health professionals in this time of crisis. We should all appreciate the diligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic coming from our public health agencies and medical communities. We should also recognize the remarkable willingness of our businesses to close, and for workers to sacrifice their jobs to prevent the loss of life. These magnanimous efforts of goodwill on the part of one and all are particularly comforting in light of the political divides that separate us. 

While there has been a heroic effort on the part of many, I want to emphasize my admiration for the steadfast determination of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public agencies, as they have exercised their power to protect us in the face of political backlash and protests. It is therefore reassuring that in spite of the hardships we face, we have pulled together, and the public has respected the disease mitigation efforts recommended by the experts. The last few weeks have made me proud to be a public health professional. 

It’s still a long way to full recovery, but as the result of the heightened public awareness about communicable disease generated by the pandemic, I predict there will be some positive benefits that will eventually result.

The average person now clearly realizes that personal hygiene and sanitation can play vital roles in preventing disease transmission. This is true, even for those diseases like COVID-19 that are primarily respiratory in nature, as respiratory droplets contaminate hands and environmental surfaces and then spread through cross-contact. This transmission pathway is well known; however, this current pandemic has brought the risks into sharp focus for everyone. 

There are several positive outcomes that should result from the public’s renewed respect for more frequent and effective hand washing, and improved environmental sanitation. Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 are a lot more likely to be washing their hands and sanitizing their schools, workplaces and living environments than they were in the past — we are reaching close to 1 million positive COVID-19 cases in the US at the time of this writing — and those who were fortunate enough to avoid exposure now feel the pressure to follow suit.

In addition to flattening the COVID-19 epidemic curve, improved hygienic practices on a national scale will also likely reduce the burdens of influenza, colds, and viral gastrointestinal disease agents such as norovirus, and can also act to limit the spread of some bacterial agents, such as Shigella.

Public health agents at the federal, state and local levels have demonstrated their tremendous value to society, and as a result, there should be increased support for public health programs and the enforcement of public health rules. Programs that should benefit at the local level include public health nursing, environmental epidemiology, and the regulation of schools, childcare centers, nursing homes, food service, and retail food establishments. For all public health agencies, it may mean better funding, an increase in manpower, and an increase in political support.

When good hygiene practices become institutionalized, they become part of the culture. These beneficial behaviors are then passed along to our children and pay dividends in better health and longer life for generations to come. These practices, if they are sustained, will also help to control the next round of emerging pathogens that will surely come.

As mechanisms of communicable disease transmission change, our survival depends on a vigorous response, and on continuous advancements in research and medical science. It was just a few hundred years ago when plagues went unchecked and killed much of the population. To avoid this, we must have prompt notification of an emerging danger, receive scientifically sound advice, act quickly to mitigate the risks, and have access to effective medical treatments. 

COVID-19 has taught us that worldwide pandemics develop very quickly and know no national, cultural or ideological boundaries. We must therefore foster in all nations an increased appreciation for improving communicable disease surveillance, and the value of taking a proactive response to emerging disease threats.

Our survival increasingly depends on sharing information, teamwork, communication and coordination across borders; for in the eyes of the pathogens, we are indeed one people. 

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The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dropped off a 15-page report at the South Dakota Health Department that contains the key for getting all the nation’s closed meat plants up and running — find people to work who are without COVID-19 infections and have them follow CDC guidelines.

“Strategies to reduce COVID-19 transmissions at the Smithfield Foods Sioux Falls pork plant” is the product of several day’s efforts by a CDC team. It included a visit to the Smithfield pork plant on April 16-17. Smithfield ceased production indefinitely on April 14. As of April 12, there were 238 employees confirmed with COVID-19 infections.

Since then, the number of Smithfield employees with COVID-19 has grown to 783 with contact tracing finding another 206 likely infected by people who worked at the pork plant.

The CDC team used the report to call upon Smithfield Foods to implement stronger measures to control the spread of COVID-19 when the plant re-opens. It has the capacity to kill and process 20,000 hogs a day, and the “Sioux-land” area of South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska surrounding the plant is known for hog production.

Two Smithfield employees have died as a result of COVID-19 infections — 64-year-old Augustin Rodriguez and 61-year-old Craig Franken.  Both men had worked at the pork plant for decades, going back prior to 1995 when Smithfield purchased the historic John Morrell plant. That was just two years after South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson died in a plane crash while returning home from a trip to try and “save the John Morrell plant.”

Smithfield has since grown into the nation’s largest pork processor and hog producer.

The CDC says pork plant employees should wear face masks and the company should have replacements readily available.  Hard hats and face shields should be sanitized at the end of each shift.

Truck drivers entering the plant should be provided with face masks and screened for COVID-19 symptoms.   And contractors and all federal meat inspectors in the plant should be “encouraged or required” to wear face masks and face shields while in the building.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has not provided face masks for the nation’s 8,000 meat and poultry inspectors. Since early April, it has provided a $50 reimbursement to inspectors who’ve purchased face masks on their own.

Since then, FSIS has been trying to obtain the hard-to-find face masks’ and taking plenty of union complaints about the agency’s failure to take the action sooner.

The FSIS, however, has wanted CDC guidance on dealing with the novel virus. At Smithfield in Sioux Falls, the CDC says the company should install no-touch sinks, soap dispensers, sanitizer dispensers, and paper towel dispensers whenever possible.

CDC also wants Smithfield to re-configure workspaces so they are staggered and not across from one another. It wants barriers between employees, social distancing, hand-washing, and personnel protective equipment adopted by all employees. 

One-way pathways should be deployed to avoid employees coming into facial contact in the building’s narrow hallways.  In the cafeterias, table configurations should be changed to reduce crowding, and shifting start times and break times and alternating locker locations should all reduce employee density inside the plant.

Smithfield needs to change policy to ensure that employees are not penalized for calling in sick, and it should not require a positive COVID-19 test.

And all training and messaging should be available in the native languages of the employees.

Food manufacturers, mostly meat, have curtailed or eliminated productions in a couple of dozen plants, mostly in the Upper Midwest,  as employees express reluctance about going back to work where others maybe ill with COVID-19  Much of the shutdown activity has occurred during the last ten days or so::

  • The Birds Eye frozen foods plant in Darien, WI, suspended most operations from April 23 to April 27,  reports owner Conagra Brands Inc.
  • Also on April 23, Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., announced that its beef facility at Pasco, WA, will temporarily halt production while employees undergo testing.  Health officials in Walla Walla, Benton, and Franklin Counties in Washington will work with the company to test its more than 1,400 staff members for COVID-19 as soon as possible.
  • Tyson Fresh Meats on April 22 announced plans to indefinitely suspend operations at its Waterloo, IA, pork plant. The facility, the company’s largest pork plant, has been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism and will stop production mid-week until further notice. The facility’s 2,800 employees will be invited to come to the plant shortly for COVID-19 testing.
  • The pork processing facility in Logansport, IN, running on limited production since April 20, will stop production entirely on or before April 25, according to Tyson Fresh Meats. Employees will be invited for COVID-19 testing.
  • Comfrey Prime Pork in Windom, MN, closed through the end of the week.
  • JBS on April 22  curtailed operations at its Brooks, Alberta, Canada, beef plant.
  • Conagra Brands Inc. temporarily closed doors at a frozen meat facility in Mashall, MO, for the 10-day period from April 17 to April 27.
  • JBS indefinitely closed its pork plant in Worthington, MN, on April 21. Only 60 miles from the closed Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, it was an alternative market for some pork producers.
  • Also on April 21, Don Miguel Foods LLC closed its Mexican prepared foods manufacturing plant in Dallas for two weeks, according to the MegaMex Foods Corp.
  • After closing Sioux Falls, Smithfield Foods on April 16 closed a bacon and sausage facility in Cudahy, WI, and a spiral and smoked ham plant in Martin City, MO.  Those closures are expected to be for two weeks each.
  • JBS USA closed the big beef plant in Greeley, CO  on April 14 after it came under a closure order from the Weld County Health Department.  It could re-open any time after the health department order expires on April 24.

An estimated 25  percent of pork processing capacity is not currently available.

CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to COVID19 — referenced in the Smithfield repor t–  provides more education around steps employees can take to protect themselves at work and at home. The guidance includes the following suggestions for communications with employees:

  • Employees can take steps to protect themselves at work and at home. Older people and people with serious chronic medical conditions are at higher risk for complications.
  • Follow the policies and procedures of your employer related to illness, cleaning and disinfecting, and work meetings and travel.
  •  Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care. Learn what to do if you are sick.
  •  Inform your supervisor if you have a sick family member at home with COVID-19. Learn what to do if someone in your house is sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow. Throw used tissues in the trash and immediately wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.

CDC’s website also references

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, and doorknobs. Dirty surfaces can be cleaned with soap and water prior to disinfection. To disinfect, use products that meet EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, and are appropriate for the surface.
  •  Avoid using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible. If necessary, clean and disinfect them before and after use.
  • Practice social distancing by avoiding large gatherings and maintaining distance —  approximately 6 feet or 2 meters — from others.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  • Workers should continue to wear PPE required for the job tasks being performed.
  • Provide appropriate PPE for specific jobs and ensure it is used by all workers as needed.
  •  Use videos or in-person visual demonstrations of proper PPE donning and doffing procedures. Maintain social distancing during these demonstrations.
  •  Emphasize that care must be taken when putting on and taking off PPE to ensure that the worker or the item does not become contaminated.
  • PPE should be: (1) disposed; or (2) properly disinfected and stored in a clean location when not in use.
  • PPE worn at the facility should not be taken home.
  • Consider the use of face shields or other types of PPE that may serve as both PPE and source control:
  • If helmets are being used, use face shields designed to attach to helmets

And the last word

  • The U.S. government is developing additional guidance for meat and poultry processing facilities to prevent and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 between employees while at work. Employers are urged to review this guidance when it becomes available and institute recommended controls where feasible.
  • Consult with USDA to determine if proposed controls are acceptable with regard to food safety and sanitation. Continue communicating and working with the South Dakota Department of Health, strategic community partners, and union leadership.

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A consumer watchdog group says the federal government is treating its meat inspectors unfairly and endangering their health as well as that of meat plant employees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This week the group Food & Water Watch leveled serious charges at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) after the online publication Government Executive posted a story with unnamed government employees describing alarming situations with meat inspectors. The watchdog group says the government is shuffling around inspectors between “hot spot” plants, increasing the risk of the spread COVID-19, also referred to as the coronavirus.

“. . . the Agriculture Department is scrambling to reassign employees from shuttered facilities to those with new outbreaks and is instructing those with known exposure to the novel coronavirus to continue reporting to work,” according to a statement from Food & Water Watch.

A spokesperson for the FSIS told Food Safety News that the claims in the statement from the consumer group are patently false, saying “we are minimizing the movement of our inspection personnel. However, there are times where it is necessary to move inspection personnel to fulfill our legal mandate to provide inspection.”

He also said the Government Executive story was wrong on many points. The spokesman said from the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FSIS has been following the guidance from the CDC for workplace precautions. As with other food businesses, the meat packing industry employees are considered essential and therefore are reporting to work as usual during the economic shutdown of the country.

It is inappropriate to assume a one size fits all policy can be applied to the meat inspectors, the spokesperson said. 

“Individual employees need to talk to their supervisors because each situation is unique,” according to the FSIS spokesperson. “We are handling situations with employees on a case-by-case basis.”

The FSIS spokesperson said the agency absolutely has not told employees to go to work it they are sick.

Food & Water Watch Senior Government Affairs Representative Tony Corbo said the government told FSIS employees during a town hall meeting this week that they should continue to report to work even if they know they have been exposed to COVID-19.

“One inspector on the call summarized the message as, ‘So just wear gloves and a face mask and work until you feel the symptoms of being sick,’ ” according to Corbo who said  three FSIS employees confirmed the new policy.

The question of gloves and mask availability is also raised by the consumer group. The government is not providing meat inspectors with masks or other protective gear related to the virus because the CDC has not issued guidance to that effect, according to the FSIS spokesman. He said, the CDC hasn’t recommended masks for anyone except frontline personnel like health care workers.

“The recommendation is for face coverings in some settings,” the FSIS spokesman said. “If an establishment is requiring the use of face masks it is up to the establishment to provide those to the inspectors.”

The government is reimbursing inspectors up to $50 for face coverings if they use their own.

One point confirmed by the FSIS spokesperson is that the agency is not and will not reveal how many inspectors total have tested positive for the virus. The spokesperson cited patient privacy laws — HIPPA — as the reason for not releasing how many inspectors out of the USDA’s workforce are positive for the virus.

“FSIS is notifying establishments if an FSIS employee tests positive for COVID-19 and expects establishments to do the same,” the spokesperson said. “Once FSIS is notified, all FSIS personnel at a facility with a confirmed case of COVID-19 will be made aware of the information.”

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Everyone who tracks food recalls knows they are an unpredictable and erratic occurrence. But even given that reality, food recalls during the past 30 days or so have been in a weird space.

Maybe the federal government’s “all hands on deck” response to the COVID-19 pandemic has not had anything to do with it, but the pace of food recalls seems to be a little off during the same period of time.

Consider for example that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) did not recall any meat, poultry, egg products, or catfish between Feb. 8 and April 10.

The FSIS announced two recalls on April 10 — 130,763 pounds of ready-to-eat chicken bowl products and 42,587 pounds of raw pork trimmings. Some of the Conagra Brands chicken bowls had small rocks in them, The raw pork from Jowett Farms Corp. in Canada was not made available for import re-inspection.

But that’s been it for FSIS during the period when the federal government has been fixated on COVID-19, also referred to as coronavirus. And putting aside recalls for undeclared allergens, the other 80 percent of the food supply, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration has seen just eight pathogen-related food safety recalls during the fixation period.

And the timing on some of these is confusing. Since mid-March, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA have been tracking an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes linked to enoki mushrooms grown in South Korea.

It’s a deadly outbreak involving 36 cases in 17 states. It’s killed four people and required hospitalization for 30, or 83 percent, of the victims. And just yesterday, three more recalls of enoki mushrooms from Korea were posted on the FDA recall website for Sun Hong Foods Inc., Guan’s Mushroom Co., and H&C Food Inc.

Here’s what was confusing. The FDA publish date for all three was April 14, 2020. Yet, the company announcement date for Sun Hong’s recall was March 9; for Guan’s Mushroom it was March 23, 2020; and for H&C Food it was April 7.

Maybe it’s a good thing because they are catching up, but delaying information about an outbreak involving a pathogen with a really high fatality rate seems more than a little off for the FDA.

Tuesday’s recalls by three different companies of the same imported mushrooms depicted the risk very differently. Sun Hong Foods Inc. made the link to the deadly outbreak. “We are aware that ill persons who may have consumed the product under investigation,” Sun Hong’s recall notice said. It said samples of its mushrooms taken by the State of Michigan tested positive for Listeria.

Guan’s Mushroom Co. said its product samples were found positive for Listeria by the State of California but said no illnesses have been reported to date “with this problem.”

H&C said: “No illnesses related to products distributed by H&C Foods have been reported to date” without making any connection to the outbreak.

FDA has posted five other pathogen-related during the period when “stay-at-home” orders have been in place. These included:

  • Whole Capelin Fish Pet Treats for possible Clostridium botulinum;
  • Organic Kudzu Root Herbal Supplement for Salmonella contamination;
  • Cooked butterfly Tail on Whiteleg for possible Vibrio contamination;
  • Red Clover Sprouts, Sprout Salad, Mixed Greens Spring Salad for E. coli O103; and
  • Frozen blackberries and frozen berry medley for Norovirus.

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COVID-19 has forced the closures of the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, and the JBS USA beef plant in Greeley, CO.

Smithfield on Easter Sunday announced the former John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls, one of the largest pork processing facilities in the U.S., would be closed indefinitely. JBS on Monday said the Greeley beef plant would be shut down until April 24.

Smithfield and JBS were reacting to reports that their facilities in Sioux Falls and Greeley have become “hotspots” for COVID-19. The South Dakota Department of Health said 238 Smithfield employees have tested positive for COVID-19, accounting for about half the cases in Minnehaha County and 38 percent of the state’s cases.  And Colorado’s Weld County Health Department had already ordered JBS to close for four days because 43 beef plant employees are infected with COVID-19.

Further, South Dakota  Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, wrote Smithfield on Saturday, recommending the company suspended operations for a minimum of 14 days. They suggested the facility be cleaned and employees are given time to recover from any suspected illness.

Smithfield employes 3,700 in Sioux Falls.  The company opted for an indefinite shutdown.

JBS began the weekend with plans to test all of its Greeley workforces after learning that two of its employees had died from COVID-19 related complications and 43 had tested positive for the virus.

After announcing plans to “test all of its team members at the Greeley, CO, beef production facility,” JBS erected numerous tents outside the plant in its parking lots for that purpose.

JBS is Greeley’s largest employer with 6,000 people, about 3,500 at the beef plant and the rest at its corporate headquarters.

Those testing plans, however, were canceled on Easter Sunday without giving employees who showed up any additional information. Large hand-painted signs were put up at the entrances to the beef plant’s parking lots that simply said: “Tests Cancelled.”

After leaving employees in the dark since Sunday, JBS finally announced shortly after 1 p.m. Monday that it was winding down operations at the plant and “its Greeley beef team members” should shelter in place until returning to work.

After the company’s announcement, the Weld County Health Department disclosed that on Friday, it had ordered JBS to immediately close the facility from April 10 until 5 a.m., Wednesday, April 15 over the spread of COVID-19.   The county’s decree called for completing the screening, testing, and cleaning by an April 15 re-opening. 

JBS said it will continue to pay its employees during the plant shutdown.

The Greeley beef plant is the second temporary closure announced by JBS. It first shuttered its Souderton, PA, beef production facility. The company said there’s been increased absenteeism at a few other plants, but most continue to operate “at or near capacity in an effort to continue providing food for Americans.”

JBS USA, owned by Brazil’s JBS, S.A., operates more than 60 meat, poultry and prepared food facilities across the United States.

JBS purchased $1 million worth of COVID-19 test kits, but has decided to have its Greeley employees self-quarantine until the re-opening in what it calls a “more aggressive action.” It is purchasing another 1,000 COVID-19 test kits for low-income and uninsured for local Weld County residents who do require testing.

The company is also making these additional donations:

  • $50,000 for producing masks for local residents.
  • $90,000 for the Greeley Personal isolation Facility for recovering COVID-19 Patients (frees up hospital space)
  • $100,000 for the Weld County Food Bank.

Greeley Mayor John Gates, quoted in the company statement, said JBS “is a great community partner and this assistance is vital and timely.”  Andre Nogueira, JBS USA CEO, said the Greeley beef plant “is critical to the U.S. food supply and local producers,” but said the spread of coronavirus in Weld County “requires decisive action.”

Meanwhile, Syracuse University Supply Chain Professor Rong Li said the labor shortage created by pandemic could give rise to automation in the industry. 

“ Although currently there’s no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through food, we will likely see other plants follow suit due to food safety concerns as well as a shortage of labor and management as more employees contract COVID-19, said the Professor.  ” Over the years, meat processors have been better equipped to deal with food safety issues that arise from the food itself. This pandemic, however, forces them to be equipped to deal with food safety issues that come from the employee and the shortage of labor.”

 

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Saul Sanchez, a 78-year old “green hat” supervisor at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, CO, died from COVID-19 on April 7. He worked at the Greeley beef plant for more than 30 years.

After Sanchez was diagnosed and hospitalized in March, his family was frustrated by JBS officials being unresponsive to their attempts to report that their loved one might have unknowingly exposed others in the beef plant to the virus — and that maybe JBS might want to do something about it.

In his death, the Sanchez family was credited by the Greeley Tribune with breaking open “the usually impenetrable concrete walls of the beef plant during a critical time.”

Since Sanchez’s death, JBS has announced numerous steps it is taking to keep its 4,500 Greeley employees safe including:

  • Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep cleaning.
  • Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts, and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms.
  • Dedicating staff to continuously clean facilities.
  • Temperature testing of all team members prior to entering our facilities.
  • Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including protective masks.
  • Removing vulnerable populations from our facilities, offering full pay and benefits.
  • Requiring sick team members to stay at home from work.
  • Waiving short-term disability waiting periods.
  • Relaxing attendance policies so people don’t come to work sick.
  • Providing free 100 percent preventive care to all team members.
  • Offering free LiveHealth Online Services that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost.

“Team member health and safety remains our top priority,” according to a JBS statement.  It said company officials are working with local health departments and following guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The past week will likely be remembered as the time when JBS and other food industry executives changed their tunes about their roles in the coronavirus outbreak with support for COVID-19 testing, plant cleansings, and even temporary closures.

In Sioux Falls, SD, Thursday, Smithfield Foods announced its plant there would close for three days after more than 80 employees tested positive for COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. Smithfield will suspend operations in a large section of the plant on April 11 and completely shutter the facility on April 12 and April 13.

A Smithfield news release sent to media on Thursday morning said the company is “taking this action out of an abundance of caution for its 3,700 employees in Sioux Falls, a portion of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.”

During the closure, Smithfield plans to clean and sanitize the plant and install additional physical barriers for improved social distancing. The company also said it has “instituted a series of stringent and detailed processes and protocols” following guidelines issued by the CDC.

The former John Morrell plant, Smithfield’s port production facility is near downtown Sioux Falls. State and city health officials view it as a COVID-19 “hotspot” because, as of Thursday, it accounted for almost one in every five of the state’s 447 cases.

Kenneth Sullivan, Smithfield president, and CEO underscored why the company’s Sioux Falls plant is considered “essential infrastructure” by state and federal officials. “Our Sioux Falls plant supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week or about 18 million servings per day, to our country,” he said.

In Hazleton, PA, Cargill has sent 900 employees home “indefinitely” from a meat processing facility that usually is helping keep grocery store meat counters full.

“Our goal is to keep our 900 employees at this case-ready protein facility healthy and minimize risk within the Hazleton community, which has been greatly impacted by COVID-19,” Cargill said. “Our facility will re-open as soon as is it is safe to do so.”

John Nash, who heads Cargill’s protein operations in North America, said the company is adding temperature testing, additional cleaning and sanitizing, and social distancing measures to its Hazleton facility. It will also stagger work breaks and offer more flexible shifts while prohibiting visitors when it re-opens.

At Hazelton in normal times, Cargill produces ground beef, steaks, beef roasts, and pork products for grocery stores across the country. Nash said Cargill “provides an essential service to the world” and will continue during the current crisis to “keep markets moving.”

In Ontario, Canada, Maple Leaf Foods suspended operations at Brampton after three employees tested positive for COVID-19. While closed, Maple Leaf will deep clean the plant and further investigate the spread of the virus.

And in Columbus Junction, IA, Tyson Foods ceased operations at its pork plant after 24 cases of COVID-19 were reported at the facility. Tyson is shifting livestock from the Columbus Junction pork plant to other facilities.

During the temporary closure, Tyson will make the safety and cleanliness improvements to help mitigate the spread of the virus, including deep cleaning and sanitizing. It is also installing dividers between work areas for social distancing. Face masks and other personnel protective equipment are being deployed for the re-opening.

The steps the meat industry is taking are also being embraced by the its regulator. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on April 9 let meat inspectors know that they may now wear face masks. In a notice, FSIS said:

“The CDC is now recommending the voluntary use of face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Per the CDC, the purpose of wearing a face covering is to help prevent the transmission of coronavirus from individuals who may be carrying or infected with the virus but are not showing symptoms,” the notice said.

“The Agency’s mission-essential workforce, whose duties require they continue to work at their primary job site every day, or who come into work intermittently at labs and headquarters, and who do not typically wear face coverings as part of their jobs, may consider wearing a face-covering consistent with CDC recommendations.”

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Contributed

What are auditors doing to protect against transmission or acquisition of SARS-CoV-2?
In the midst of the produce industry responses to the supply chain and marketplace disruptions from the SARS-CoV-2 (also called COVID 19 and coronavirus) pandemic, audits under the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarked and FSMA-integrated audit schemes for Good Agricultural Practices, Good Handling Practices, Good Manufacturing Practice, and various other aspects of food safety systems are continuing. Audit service providers appear very uniform in providing assurance and sound policies for conducting ranch and facility site-audits and, as possible, virtual audits.

In line with the fluidity of guidance and specific protective measures from authoritative sources, these policies resonate with the current information provided by the WHO, CDC, FDA, CDC, and local, state and federal authorities in countries of their operation. Flexibility and accommodations for certificate extensions have been communicated to support the industry during this challenging time, if full audits must be delayed because of COVID-19.   A few examples are provided here for those interested in the measures being taken to protect the firm, its employees, and the auditors themselves as they must travel within and among affected regions. Some key elements include daily self-monitoring, 14-day self-isolation if having traveled from or through a restricted area, separate vehicle travel from firm’s host, frequent handwashing, and frequent sanitization of any hand-held equipment and clothing.  

Post-harvest water audit challenges have sparked controversy
Few produce safety control point operations have generated as much confusion and heated discourse as water quality management during postharvest cooling, washing, fluming, and quality retention treatments. This is triply true for recirculated water systems.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the challenges of optimizing postharvest wash and cooling water quality management had once again risen to the forefront as the full FSMA ‘covered’ produce industry came into the compliance, inspection, and enforcement dates. Industry market-access, marketing association, and marketing order audit schemes reflected this increased expectation and scrutiny around scientifically valid water quality management parameters and verification programs. One of the more controversial compliance elements frequently arriving in my e-mail Inbox (nobody calls anymore) involves having a measurable and verifiable foundation for the frequency of partial or complete clean water exchanges. 

Added to this, several firms brought the issue of some auditors and inspectors insisting that measurement of turbidity (water clarity) in postharvest water uses is a compliance requirement, a must, of the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.  So, let’s deal with this here; I can find no evidence of this specific requirement or provision. Determining an effective and reproducible method for maintaining adequate water quality in postharvest applications is expected but not prescribed. 

One of the common battle lines has been drawn around the use of turbidity as the practical and inexpensive trigger for freshwater introduction to recirculated dump systems, flume transport, cooling, and wash/treatment water in postharvest handling. Freshwater replenishment is one key tool to maximize the performance and dose management of diverse antimicrobial treatments to postharvest water. This is essential to minimize the risk of cross-contamination within and among lots over time, whether hours or, in rare cases, days.  

Simply stated, turbidity is a simple and readily on-site deployable measurement but a limited indicator of an operational ability to manage microbial water quality in postharvest handling. Turbidity, or clarity, is an optical measurement of the light scattering properties of a liquid. For simplicity, let’s just say water. The intensity of light scattering is related to the specific traits and concentration of the materials in the water. These turbidity “factors” may include any single or combination of clay, silt, small and very small inorganic or organic suspended aggregates, dissolved organic substances, humic acids, and pigmented plant cell particulates and exudates to name a few.

The more suspended and dissolved materials in the water the greater the turbidity or cloudiness. Suspended particulates have been shown, in several recent studies and models of postharvest water quality, to provide a protective effect to human pathogens already attached to these surfaces or matrices. These particulates interfere with optimal dose efficacy of common water antimicrobials or prevent contact by their hydrophobic (water repelling) properties. 

Many operations have selected various methods to measure or judge postharvest water turbidity and use these adopted or in-house generated values to determine when to add fresh water or execute a full off-schedule water exchange, due to prevailing seasonal conditions. Obviously, dilution of particulates and reduction of dissolved organic compounds will benefit towards operating within scientifically valid limits and above any established critical food safety limits or levels provided as guidance. 

The controversy being encountered during inspections and audits arises when a turbidity standard has been set within a SOP and the firm is challenged to provide acceptable evidence of a reference validation study. These are exceptionally hard to come by. Very few peer reviewed studies accurately reflect the specific or even general commercial systems. Auditors or inspectors correctly observe that the boundaries of experimentally defined limits may be difficult to manage with accuracy (correct) and precision (consistent) in commercial systems. Those studies which do, based on on-site testing, typically report a low correlation to predicting antimicrobial dose-management control and achieving microbial water quality management goals, based on turbidity measurement alone. 

Interestingly, all sources of turbidity are not the same. It would be very easy to get deep into the weeds on this subject. You might even be ready to take a weedwhacker to this, but it is complex and specific to the situation and there are a number of recent journal papers and a few lengthy reviews on the topic. Suffice it to say that all current research points to the fact that all turbidity is not created equal.

The same measured turbidity in different soil and organic constituent burdens may be perfectly adequate or inadequate to facilitate antimicrobial dose uniformity and maintenance. These differences directly influence the risk of cross-contamination of foodborne pathogens (primarily bacteria) in recirculated postharvest water. In some water systems a turbidity of 300-500 NTU (the units of clarity; FAU is an alternative unit but comparable) comprised of dissolved simple organic compounds would be excessive to prevent microbiological exceedances. In recirculated water with largely inorganic soil, with low humic acids and other sources of phenolic compounds, 1500 NTU may be a manageable operational upper limit.     

This same body of research, from several research groups, points to Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) as one of the better correlating traits to predicting the typical and worst-case accumulation of acute and long-term chlorine demand as raw or minimally-processed product and non-product materials (such as soil, leaf debris, decayed or damaged product) is added repeatedly to water systems. Even here, the specific composition that makes up the COD matters. Much of the focus has been on hypochlorite’s (chlorine) as the more impacted antimicrobial as compared to peroxyacetic acid and other effective organic acids, such as lactic acid. However, specific components of a system’s turbidity will interfere with these formulation’s efficacy and, as with chlorine and chlorine dioxide, can interfere with accurate dose measurement. 

The current research is detailed, systematic, and robust but still very difficult to derive and develop simple guidance for end-users. One good source for open access to these details is available at producefoodsafety.org, a website dedicated to the outcomes of a large multi-investigator and multi-institution project under the Principal Investigator leadership and administrative coordination of Dr. Yaguang (Sunny) Luo (https://www.producefoodsafety.org/).  

There are many in-line turbidity sensors and combined turbidity and conductivity sensors for commercial systems. My lab at University of California-Davis had an opportunity to conduct multi-visits to a grower-shipper to assist with assessing a newly installed hydrocooler management system with an in-line turbidity sensor, in-line PAA sensor, and suspended solids removal system. Focusing just on turbidity, the in-line sensor gave a different but very consistent read-out compared to a replicated ‘grab-sample’ from the system return water. Compared to the portable colorimeter, the sensor reading was always lower but uniformly so over several visits. With this outcome, it would be possible to derive a correction factor and use the on-site verification values, together with the other measurements of COD, dose, and microbial water quality control, to establish process control parameters.   

Lastly, there is a growing interest in the potential for using ultraviolet light absorbance at 254 nm (UV254) as a surrogate for COD measurements. Several labs have been evaluating the predictive value as a real-time measure of antimicrobial demand. Thus far, across several fresh and fresh-cut commodities, the results have shown good but, again, incomplete correlations and a limited consistency across reported studies. However, as in many imperfect systems, integrating multiple measurements in models being developed would appear to provide a functional and practical approach to improved postharvest wash water management for food safety and quality.     

About the information: This outreach article was developed as part of the objectives of National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, agreement number 2016-51181-25403.

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Opinion

Dear Speaker Pelosi, Leader McCarthy, Leader McConnell and Leader Schumer,

As Congress develops urgently needed additional legislation to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators must do much more to ensure that healthy, safe and affordable food is available to all, and to minimize the challenges facing farmers, food workers and farmworkers who are risking their own health to keep our food system going. Before this pandemic, 37 million people in the U.S. were food insecure (1), and the economic crisis exacerbated by COVID-19 will leave millions more without access to affordable healthy food. From farm to fork, your response to the COVID-19 pandemic must ensure that these people – the tens of millions of food insecure households in this country, and nearly 22 million individuals employed in the agriculture and food industries (2) – have the economic security necessary at this critical time to feed and support themselves, their children and their families.

Congress got it right by including in the Family First Act and CARES Act provisions that provide financial assistance to food banks, school nutrition programs, farmers and restaurants forced to close. But these bills do not protect food and farm workers doing their essential jobs. Food and farm workers need to be designated “first responders” because they are on the front lines of this battle. They deserve not only our gratitude but adequate protection and provision for their health, safety and financial security. They need access to adequate information about the virus. They need paid sick time so that if they do contract the virus, they can take time off to get better. They need basic safety equipment, like handwashing stations, and basic protections, like six feet of space between workers. They need health care when they do get sick, and they need fair compensation for the risks each of them takes every day to keep us fed. In addition, the CARES Act fell short of what’s needed to keep farms going, keep newly unemployed food workers afloat, and to help keep food on the table for all people in this country facing hunger, especially our seniors.

As you develop new legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we urge you to:

  • Protect food and farm workers – Much more needs to be done by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, which needs to issue and strongly enforce an Emergency Temporary Standard to mandate that employers offer adequate protections for front-line food-chain workers and others at risk. These protections must ensure that the food and farm workers who grow, manufacture, stock , sell, and transport our food have adequate protections from the virus, including personal protective equipment and the ability to report violations. USDA should also issue food and worker safety guidance to school food service workers, operators and volunteers, and provide them with personal protective equipment.
  • Expand food and farm worker benefits – Congress should do more to support newly unemployed food and farm workers by expanding the number of weeks that workers are eligible for unemployment benefits, regardless of immigration status, and provide hazard pay. Congress should also ensure that all food and farm workers are designated as first responders and are eligible to receive state benefits such as childcare, overtime, premium pay and have the right to organize.
  • Expand paid leave – To protect the health of food and farm workers and their families, and reduce the spread of the virus, Congress should provide free COVID-19 testing regardless of immigration status and provide universal paid sick days and paid family and medical leave. What’s more, Congress should expand health care coverage by paying for medical treatment related to COVID-19, by increasing the federal share of state Medicaid expenditures, and by adopting policies to help unemployed food and farm workers obtain health insurance.
  • Support farmers in need – Farmers are ready to meet regional food supply needs. To ensure that they can do so, Congress should place a moratorium on farm foreclosures and expand grant and loan programs. Priority in financial assistance from USDA should be directed to those most susceptible to economic downturns, including socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and those who have lost local and regional markets due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All farmers receiving financial assistance should demonstrate how funds will bolster local and regional food and economic security.
  • Enforce food safety laws – Congress should ensure that the USDA, EPA and the FDA enforce laws that keep our food supply safe, especially environmental laws that protect farm workers from pesticides and protect our drinking water supplies and laws that limit line speeds in meat and poultry processing.
  • Support families facing hunger – To support families facing hunger and provide an immediate boost to the economy, Congress should increase the SNAP benefit by 15 percent and raise the minimum monthly benefit to $30, and suspend rules that limit benefits. Congress should also suspend the public charge rule and take other steps to prohibit discrimination in anti-hunger programs. USDA should also use its authority to make it easier to provide meals to low-income families during school closures, many of whom are food and farm workers, by issuing a nationwide waiver for area eligibility.
  • Support elderly people and families – Congress should immediately expand the definition of “homebound” in the Meal to Wheels program to include all seniors. This will help reduce the threat the virus poses to the most susceptible Americans.
  • Support food vendors – Congress should do much more to support independent restaurants, including street vendors, by providing grants, reforming loan forgiveness standards and expanding zero-interest loans, and by extending loan periods.

Our food and farm workers are working long hours, at enormous personal risk, to make sure store shelves are stocked and families are fed. Millions of restaurant workers have lost their jobs. Mom and pop restaurants face the risk of economic ruin. And many families who lost their jobs or depend on school meals may now go hungry. As more workers become sick and job losses grow, our nation’s food farm system will be tested. We must get ahead of this with proactive measures rather than play catch-up later. Congress must do much more to provide the resources and policies we need to protect workers and ensure that healthy, affordable food is available to all. Food and farm workers have always taken care of us. It is in our national interest to take care of them.

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