China has defended its actions on coronavirus at a meeting of a World Trade Organization (WTO) committee.

The United States and Canada expressed concerns on China’s procedures affecting trade in food and agricultural products at the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures. The U.S. had previously raised the topic at the last SPS meeting in late June.

Chinese representatives said the steps were provisional, science-based, in agreement with WTO rules and those of international organizations, and aimed at protecting people’s lives.

Reports from China have included detection of coronavirus on packages of shrimp from Saudi Arabia, fish from India, beef from Brazil and Argentina, pork from Germany, salmon from Norway and shrimp from Ecuador. Chinese customs has been doing nucleic acid testing for COVID-19 on imported cold chain foods, the inner and outer packaging, and containers.

EU position on China action
Officials from the European Union said they regret the outbreak has led a few countries to adopt trade restrictions for agri-food products that are not science based, targeted or proportionate to the risk. The EU was “very concerned” about “unnecessary” additional requirements in the form of tests, inspections or certificates on imported food products.

“It is regrettable that the People’s Republic of China. . . is imposing COVID-19 related measures on imported cold-chain foods without providing a risk assessment based on science to justify these measures. If individual members insist on additional, unnecessary verification and testing measures, the situation could easily lead to a global spiral towards imposing unjustified import controls in the agri-food chain.”

The EU asked China to share its risk assessment to justify the emergency measures and to explain why they are considered proportionate. It also wanted to know the expected date when the measures will end.

Guidance from China requires packaging of imported cold chain products to be disinfected and subject to nucleic acid testing on entry to the country prior to storage and distribution.

Brazil raised the Philippines’ ban on poultry imports after detecting SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, in a surface sampling on Brazilian chicken meat. The Philippines said that while international guidelines indicate the transmission of COVID-19 through food is very low, the fact that it is possible a person may become infected by touching a contaminated surface or object should not be dismissed.

Other trade issues and SPS anniversary
A total of 39 trade concerns were raised at the meetings on Nov. 2 to 6 and 13 including 19 issues addressed for the first time by the committee.

Brazil highlighted Mexico’s import restrictions on pork. The EU and Russia asked the Republic of Korea about a lack of progress on pending applications for authorization of beef imports, while Mexico took issue with Honduras’ restrictions on pasteurized dairy products. Peru challenged Ecuador about import barriers on grapes and onions.

Canada raised concerns on India’s import requirements for pulses. Russia voiced problems regarding alleged delays in Malaysia’s approval procedures for meat and dairy imports while Peru took issue with the EU’s restrictions on its exports of chocolate and cocoa products.

In opening remarks at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the WTO agreement on SPS Measures earlier this month, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff said food safety continues to be a major concern for all WTO members.

“The SPS Agreement recognizes the need to protect health and ensure food safety, while aiming to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade. The work of the SPS Agreement is not done. Recent studies on food safety, animal and plant health have shed light on the human health implications and economic relevance of SPS measures,” he said.

“SPS risks can have devastating effects. Limited capacity to meet food safety, animal and plant health requirements is often one of the major obstacles for producers in developing countries to engage in trade in agricultural products.”

The next regular meeting of the SPS Committee is scheduled for March 25 and 26, 2021.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)

Contributed

Editor’s note: Even if you have already made holiday plans, it’s not to late to change them to reduce the chance of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful and isolating for many people. Gatherings during the upcoming holidays can be an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. This holiday season, consider how your holiday plans can be modified to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to keep your friends, families, and communities healthy and safe.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 epidemic is worsening, and small household gatherings are an important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases. CDC offers the following considerations to slow the spread of COVID-19 during small gatherings. These considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which all gatherings must comply.

Considerations for small gatherings of family and friends

Smaller holiday gatherings will decrease the risk of spreading the coronavirus, according to the CDC.

Celebrating virtually or with members of your own household (who are consistently taking measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19) poses the lowest risk for spread. In-person gatherings that bring together family members or friends from different households, including college students returning home, pose varying levels of risk.

Organizers and attendees of larger events should consider the risk of virus spread based on event size (number of attendees and other factors) and take steps to reduce the possibility of infection, as outlined in the Considerations for Events and Gatherings.

There are several factors that contribute to the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 at small in-person gatherings. In combination, these factors will create various amounts of risk:

  • Community levels of COVID-19 – High or increasing levels of COVID-19 cases in the gathering location, as well as in the areas where attendees are coming from, increase the risk of infection and spread among attendees. Family and friends should consider the number of COVID-19 cases in their community and in the community where they plan to celebrate when deciding whether to host or attend a gathering. Information on the number of cases in an area can often be found on the local health department website.
  • Exposure during travelAirports, bus stations, train stations, public transport, gas stations, and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces.
  • Location of the gathering – Indoor gatherings, especially those with poor ventilation (for example, small enclosed spaces with no outside air), pose more risk than outdoor gatherings.
  • Duration of the gathering – Gatherings that last longer pose more risk than shorter gatherings. Being within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more greatly increases the risk of becoming sick and requires a 14-day quarantine.
  • Number and crowding of people at the gathering – Gatherings with more people pose more risk than gatherings with fewer people. CDC does not have a limit or recommend a specific number of attendees for gatherings. The size of a holiday gathering should be determined based on the ability of attendees from different households to stay 6 feet (2 arm lengths) apart, wear masks, wash hands, and follow state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations.
  • Behaviors of attendees prior to the gathering – Individuals who did not consistently adhere to social distancing (staying at least 6 feet apart), mask wearing, handwashing, and other prevention behaviors pose more risk than those who consistently practiced these safety measures.
  • Behaviors of attendees during the gathering – Gatherings with more safety measures in place, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and handwashing, pose less risk than gatherings where fewer or no preventive measures are being implemented. Use of alcohol or drugs may alter judgment and make it more difficult to practice COVID-19 safety measures.

Certain people should not attend holiday gatherings in person

People with or exposed to COVID-19 should not host or participate in any in-person gatherings if you or anyone in your household:

Do not host or attend gatherings with anyone who has COVID-19 or has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

People at increased risk for severe illness
If you are an older adult or person with certain medical conditions who is at increased risk of severe illnessfrom COVID-19, or live or work with someone at increased risk of severe illness, you should avoid in-person gatherings with people who do not live in your household.

Considerations for hosting or attending a gathering
If you will be hosting a gathering during the holiday season that brings people who live in different households together, follow CDC tips for hosting gatherings. If you will be attending a gathering that someone else is hosting, follow CDC Considerations for Events and Gatherings. Below are some general considerations for hosting a gathering that brings together people from different households. Guests should be aware of these considerations and ask their host what mitigation measures will be in place during the gathering. Hosts should consider the following:
  • Check the COVID-19 infection rates in areas where attendees live on state, local, territorial, or tribal health department websites. Based on the current status of the pandemic, consider if it is safe to hold or attend the gathering on the proposed date.
  • Limit the number of attendees as much as possible to allow people from different households to remain at least 6 feet apart at all times. Guests should avoid direct contact, including handshakes and hugs, with others not from their household.
  • Host outdoor rather than indoor gatherings as much as possible. Even outdoors, require guests to wear masks when not eating or drinking.
  • Avoid holding gatherings in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces with persons who are not in your household.
  • Increase ventilation by opening windows and doors to the extent that is safe and feasible based on the weather, or by placing central air and heating on continuous circulation.
    • For additional information on increasing ventilation, visit CDC’s information on Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Home.
    • Winter weather can be cold, wet, and unpredictable. Inclement weather makes it difficult to increase ventilation by opening windows or to hold an event outdoors.
  • If setting up outdoor seating under a pop-up open air tent, ensure guests are still seated with physical distancing in mind. Enclosed 4-wall tents will have less air circulation than open air tents. If outdoor temperature or weather forces you to put up the tent sidewalls, consider leaving one or more sides open or rolling up the bottom 12” of each sidewall to enhance ventilation while still providing a wind break.
  • Require guests to wear masks. At gatherings that include persons of different households, everyone should always wear a mask that covers both the mouth and nose, except when eating or drinking. It is also important to stay at least 6 feet away from people who are not in your household at all times.
  • Encourage guests to avoid singing or shouting, especially indoors. Keep music levels down so people don’t have to shout or speak loudly to be heard.
  • Encourage attendees to wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Provide guests information about any COVID-19 safety guidelines and steps that will be in place at the gathering to prevent the spread of the virus.
  • Provide and/or encourage attendees to bring supplies to help everyone to stay healthy. These include extra masks (do not share or swap with others), hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, and tissues. Stock bathrooms with enough hand soap and single use towels.
  • Limit contact with commonly touched surfaces or shared items such as serving utensils.
  • Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces and any shared items between use when feasible. Use EPA-approved disinfectantsexternal icon.
  • Use touchless garbage cans if available. Use gloves when removing garbage bags or handling and disposing of trash. Wash hands after removing gloves.
  • Plan ahead and ask guests to avoid contact with people outside of their households for 14 days before the gathering.
  • Treat pets as you would other human family members – do not let pets interact with people outside the household.

The more of these prevention measures that you put in place, the safer your gathering will be. No one measure is enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Food and drinks at small holiday gatherings
Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that handling food or eating is associated with directly spreading COVID-19. It is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, including food, food packaging, or utensils that have the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way that the virus is spread. Remember, it is always important to follow food safety practices to reduce the risk of illness from common foodborne germs.

  • Encourage guests to bring food and drinks for themselves and for members of their own household only; avoid potluck-style gatherings.
  • Wear a mask while preparing food for or serving food to others who don’t live in your household.
  • All attendees should have a plan for where to store their mask while eating and drinking. Keep it in a dry, breathable bag (like a paper or mesh fabric bag) to keep it clean between uses.
  • Limit people going in and out of the areas where food is being prepared or handled, such as in the kitchen or around the grill, if possible.
  • Have one person who is wearing a mask serve all the food so that multiple people are not handling the serving utensils.
  • Use single-use options or identify one person to serve sharable items, like salad dressings, food containers, plates and utensils, and condiments.
  • Make sure everyone washes their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after preparing, serving, and eating food and after taking trash out. Use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Designate a space for guests to wash hands after handling or eating food.
  • Limit crowding in areas where food is served by having one person dispense food individually to plates, always keeping a minimum of a 6-foot distance from the person whom they are serving. Avoid crowded buffet and drink stations. Change and launder linen items (e.g., seating covers, tablecloths, linen napkins) immediately following the event.
  • Offer no-touch trash cans for guests to easily throw away food items.
  • Wash dishes in the dishwasher or with hot soapy water immediately following the gathering.

Travel and Overnight Stays
If you decide to travel, follow these safety measures during your trip to protect yourself and others from COVID-19:

  • Wear a mask in public settings, like on public and mass transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere you will be around other people.
  • Avoid close contact by staying at least 6 feet apart (about 2 arm lengths) from anyone who is not from your household.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol).
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
  • Avoid touching your face mask, eyes, nose, and mouth.

Travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. Use information from the following webpages to decide whether to travel during the holidays:

Considerations for staying overnight or hosting overnight guests
Consider whether you, someone you live with, or anyone you plan to visit with is at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, to determine whether to stay overnight in the same residence or to stay elsewhere.

  • Assess risk for infection based on how you or your visitor will travel.
  • Consider and prepare for what you will do if you, or someone else, becomes sick during the visit. What are the plans for isolation, medical care, basic care, and travel home?

Tips for staying overnight or hosting overnight guests

  • Visitors should launder clothing and mask, and stow luggage away from common areas upon arrival.
  • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially upon arrival.
  • Wear masks while inside the house. Masks may be removed for eating, drinking, and sleeping, but individuals from different households should stay at least 6 feet away from each other at all times.
  • Improve ventilation by opening windows and doors or by placing central air and heating on continuous circulation.
  • Spend time together outdoors. Take a walk or sit outdoors at least 6 feet apart for interpersonal interactions.
  • Avoid singing or shouting, especially indoors.
  • Treat pets as you would other human family members – do not let pets interact with people outside the household.
  • Monitor hosts and guests for symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath.
  • Hosts and guests should have a plan for what to do if someone becomes sick.
Get your flu vaccine
Gatherings can contribute to the spread of other infectious diseases. Getting a flu vaccine is an essential part of protecting your health and your family’s health this season. Flu vaccines are useful any time during the flu season and can often be accessed into January or later.

Steps to take if exposed to COVID-19 during a holiday gathering
If you are exposed to COVID-19 at a holiday gathering, while traveling, or at any time, quarantine yourself to protect others by doing the following:

  • Stay home for 14 days after your last contact with a person who has COVID-19.
  • Stay away from others, especially people who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
  • Watch for fever (100.4◦F or higher), cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19
  • Consider getting tested for COVID-19.  Even if you test negative for COVID-19 or feel healthy, you should still stay home (quarantine) for 14 days after your last contact with a person who has COVID-19.  This is because symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, and some infected people never have symptoms but are still contagious.
  • Do not travel until 14 days after your last possible exposure.

If you can’t completely stay away from others during the 14 days:

  • Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) away from other people.
  • Wear a mask that covers both the mouth and nose when you are outside of your home.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol).
  • Monitor yourself and household members for symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Get information about COVID-19 testing if you feel sick.

If you develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19 within 14 days of the event or celebration, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath, or if you test positive for COVID-19, immediately notify the host and others who attended. They may need to inform other attendees about their possible exposure to the virus. Contact your health care provider and follow the CDC-recommended steps for what to do if you become sick, and follow the public health recommendations for community-related exposure.

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, a public health worker may contact you to check on your health and ask you who you have been in contact with and where you’ve spent time in order to identify and provide support to people (contacts) who may have been infected. Your information will be confidential. Learn more about what to expect with contact tracing.pdf icon

Holiday celebrations
Holiday celebrations will likely need to be different this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Avoid activities that are higher risk for spread. Consider fun alternatives that pose lower risk of spreading COVID-19.

Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is a time when many families travel long distances to celebrate together. Travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. If you must travel, be informed of the risks involved.

Lower risk activities include:
  • Having a small dinner with only people who live in your household
  • Preparing traditional family recipes for family and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and delivering them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others
  • Having a virtual dinner and sharing recipes with friends and family
  • Shopping online rather than in person on the day after Thanksgiving or the next Monday
  • Watching sports events, parades, and movies from home
Moderate risk activities include:
  • Having a small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in your community
  • Visiting pumpkin patches or orchards where people use hand sanitizer before touching pumpkins or picking apples, wearing masks is encouraged or enforced, and people are able to maintain social distancing
  • Attending a small outdoor sports events with safety precautions in place
Higher risk activities include:

Avoid these higher risk activities to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19:

  • Going shopping in crowded stores just before, on, or after Thanksgiving
  • Participating or being a spectator at a crowded race
  • Attending crowded parades
  • Attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household
  • Using alcohol or drugs that may alter judgment and make it more difficult to practice COVID-19 safety measures.

Delegates on the opening day of an online conference have heard about the current challenges to food safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first day of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) event, which runs through Friday, featured speakers from UKHospitality, DEFRA, Just Eat, and the Cold Chain Federation.

Lisa Ackerley, a food safety adviser to UKHospitality, said in the early days of the pandemic some of the immediate challenges concerned what to do with stock.

“There was a lot of food wastage and attempts to give it away. Those agile businesses that had seen this coming and become retail and takeaways almost overnight meant new systems had to be organized and people were having to review food safety management systems and do new processes such as delivery,” she said.

Focus on allergens
Different issues came up when re-opening, according to Ackerley.

“Environmental health practitioners in private practice have written guidance for someone and immediately it’s all changed and out of date. Businesses, enforcement officers, consultants and EHPs are having to be agile and flexible. Most people want to do the right thing but they need to know what that is. It is important there is feedback to government when guidance comes out. It is a period of great uncertainty for customers, businesses and for enforcement officers and consultants.”

Ackerley said supply disruption and substitution was particularly problematic in the beginning and Brexit coming up could be another problem. Other issues include a reduced menu and choice for those with allergies, vegans and vegetarians.

“One of the problems for those with allergies is there is less dialogue going on between the business and customer because of the way we are trying to keep our distance and that makes it slightly difficult for customers with allergies and there may also be less experienced staff. We mustn’t forget allergens, they must be high on the agenda,” Ackerley said.

The “normal stuff” such as pest control, food safety, legionella and licensing still worry businesses and enforcement officers as things can go wrong that have nothing to do with COVID-19.

Food safety and biocides
Darryl Thomson, chairman of the UKHospitality Food Experts Group, said there is a lot to be done even when a business is closed.

“You have to continue with the due diligence, a lot of food would have been frozen and wouldn’t have ordinarily been frozen, pest control, maintenance and security still need to be managed,” he said.

Lisa Ackerley (top left), Barbara Bray (bottom left), Kate Thompson (top right) and Gideon Henderson

Thomson was asked about the impact of the pandemic on compliance.

“I asked this question of one of the large third-party auditors and they said they’ve not seen any noticeable change in observed non-conformances to date but what they did see early on was the safety management system were skewed towards COVID and left food safety a bit short, but that has been self-corrected. There have also been some improvements in cleaning standards.”

Speaking during a panel discussion, Ackerley said it was important not to forget about food safety in relation to reduction of biocides and she was in an UKHospitality group on this topic.

“We are looking at conflict between the need to reduce biocide residues in food because of pesticides and so on. Where we use chemicals such as chlorate in water that can cause a residue in food,” she said.

“This has stopped people using certain disinfectants which are critical for food safety, in particular for Listeria in short shelf life foods. It is this difficultly between what is a chemical contaminant and the conflict if you don’t have it there, of potentially having a food poisoning situation. We need to always keep balanced and not focus in on one issue as there are usually knock on effects.”

Just Eat’s approach
Steven Glass, global head of food safety at Just Eat, talked attendees through the impact of the lockdown in March and what has happened since then.

“It was severe, as more than a quarter of the restaurants we have on our marketplace went offline overnight. We saw close to 40 percent of orders drop off overnight. We did benefit from a V shaped recovery, by the end of that week we had bounced back to what we were two weeks before the lockdown,” he said.

“As a company this time last year we carried out 300,000 to 350,000 orders a day up and down the UK and that has leapt to about half a million orders per day. It sounds great and is but does come with huge challenges.”

Just Eat merged with Dutch food delivery firm Takeaway.com earlier this year and is in the process of joining with U.S.-based GrubHub. Just Eat operates in 23 countries and has about 47,000 restaurants in the United Kingdom on its marketplace compared to 35,000 this time in 2019.

A four-step support plan for partners included advice on continuing to trade legally and safely, securing PPE, more than 1,000 free COVID training sessions through its food hygiene partner NSF and materials to use in restaurants and online to help customers keep their distance and stay safe.

Just Eat deliveries are carried out mostly by restaurants but the plan is to employ drivers in the future in the UK. Last year, the firm took out zero rated premises on its sites.

“NSF were brought in to coach, train and audit a lot of those premises. A lot of them don’t necessarily want to engage with authority or another business telling them what to do so eventually we switched them off and we plan to go further with that,” said Glass.

“The first stage is making sure the new sign-ups have a minimum of a pass in Scotland or a food hygiene rating scheme score of 3 in the rest of the UK. We did relax that to include awaiting inspections and that still exists for standard food businesses that have a shop front and a history of trading. If you are a non-standard premise like a home caterer or a dark kitchen and are making food solely for delivery then we’ll accept you as awaiting inspection but only after our auditors have been on site and carried out an inspection.

“For existing businesses that are 1 and 2 rated we plan to follow the same approach. An improvement plan which we are in the middle of right now followed by a switch off date. It was supposed to happen in 2020 but we postponed it primarily because of coronavirus.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

ROSEMONT, IL — Roslyn Stone, who manages health incidents for many of the nation’s largest restaurants and foodservice chains as the chief operating officer for Zero Hour Health, clearly has Dr. Monique Foster, who is epidemiology lead for hepatitis A at the Division of Viral Hepatitis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC0 in Atlanta, on her speed dial.

At the CDC, Foster is fighting the widespread person-to-person outbreaks of hepatitis A that have plagued specific U.S. cities and states since first identified in 2016. Across 34 states, hepatitis A outbreaks from 2016 to Oct. 16, 2020, have involved 35,578 confirmed patients with 21,744 ,or 61, percent requiring hospitalization and 336 deaths. Speaking virtually from the Food Safety Summit, Foster said that from 2014 to 2018, the Hep A outbreaks occurring across the country represented an 850 percent increase in Hep A cases.

Stone and Foster jointly put on a live session for the Summit on how the response to the Hep A outbreaks has helped combat COVID-19 and might be bringing the Hep A outbreaks to a close. Before COVID-19 arrived, Hep A led the restaurant health incidents that required Stone’s response. Others included norovirus, measles, and mumps.

While Hep A can be spread through foodborne transmission by ingestion of contaminated food and drink, that’s been rare. What’s been happening lately, according to Foster is the person-to-person transmission with an infected person and recently that’s meant someone from a specific at-risk group — drug users, the homeless, and men who have sex with men — topping the list.

The hepatitis A Virus (HAV) replicates in the liver and is excreted in bile. Foster says it is an “acute illness” known for causing fever, jaundice, myalgia, anorexia, malaise, and diarrhea. It has an average incubation period of 28 days with a range of 15 to 50 days.  Infections peak from 10-14 days prior to showing symptoms to 7-10 days after the onset of symptoms.  Foster says the lengthy times make Hep A difficult to investigate.

She calls the Hep A virus “small but mighty” due to it remaining stable outside the body for months, and the ability to withstand temperature variances — including freezing —  and other characteristics. 

Hep A is associated with international travelers in the U.S. because the number of other incidents has historically been low.

Foster says that while “person-to-person” contact is responsible for the vast majority of the current outbreaks and involves people from the impacted groups, there is a “bias” in public awareness. That’s because reporting about outbreaks largely focuses on when restaurant customers might have been exposed to an infected restaurant worker. In such instances, CDC favors doing an evaluation to determine how likely it was that the infected restaurant or foodservice worker would have infected a customer or co-worker while on the job. 

The agency does not favor public notification in all instances, only when time remains to make vaccinating restaurant employees or customers worthwhile. 

 “Secondary transmissions do occur,” says Foster.  But she reports that secondary infections from food handlers are low — less than 1 percent of all the cases. It means that preemptively vaccinating all food handlers would be ineffective at mitigating the current risk of the person-to-person outbreaks.  

Foster says local health departments should assess risk on a case-by-case basis and target vaccinations at high-risk populations. Most of the infected food handlers identified by CDC surveys are in fact high-risk group members who just happen to be employed in the restaurant industry.   

Foster encourages the prevention of foodborne transmission of the hepatitis A virus by property handwashing; eliminating bare hand contact with food; open discussion by managers and employees about symptoms and diagnoses, exclude or restrict employees with symptoms of Hep A infections; and awareness of state-specific exclusion policies.  

Stone says learning to respond correctly to Hep A incidents has helped with the response to COVID-19. She says the novel virus is surging in many states, large numbers of restaurant employees are “excluded” for exposure having the illness, and changing state and local requirements remain a challenge. The first of the seasonal flu cases began occurring two weeks ago. Mask and glove use is now standard across the country, with a focus on handwashing and temperature checks.

“We don’t know if this is the second surge or the third surge,” she says. But every day a dozen states see rising COVID numbers.

Stone says some state and local health departments are “going public” with just one COVID-19 case. Depending on the jurisdiction, that can mean 10 to 14 days “exclusions” preventing the employee from working, the need to clean and sanitize the restaurant or facility, and the beginning of “contact” tracing to find those who spent 15 minutes within six feet of the sick person, or even less time depending on the state.

The restaurant industry, she says, has refocused on wellness checks, hand washing, and making sure people who are sick do not come to work.

Stone told the virtual conference attendees that much was learned from Hep A., including the need for wellness checks, keeping sick employees at home, hand washing and how to respond to an incident. Work schedules are Hep A’s version of contact tracing and the incidents taught the need for keeping vaccinations histories.

Stone said the restaurant industry went from four Hep A incidents a year to four per week with the current outbreaks.

The frequency of the Hep A  events has brought change to the restaurant industry.   Managers know they can no longer encourage an ill employee to just stay through the lunch rush. “We’ve really learned from Hep A that we cannot let that happen,” Stone said.

Progress is being made with the Hep A outbreaks. Five Southwestern states have declared an end to their outbreaks, and at least a dozen more haven’t experienced any significant amount of cases. The CDC’s latest status report continues below.

State-Reported Hepatitis A Outbreak Cases as of Oct. 16, 2020

Data illustrated in this map can be found in the table found directly below

State-Reported Hepatitis A Outbreak Cases and Clinical Outcomes
State Case Total Hospitalizations n (%) Deaths Outbreak Start Date Data Current Through
Total 35578 21744 (61%) 336    
States with an ongoing outbreak
Alabama 838 565 (67%) NR 9/1/2018 8/31/2020
Arkansas 482 256 (53%) 3 2/7/2018 3/6/2020
Colorado 405 288 (71%) 2 10/1/2018 9/30/2020
Delaware 38 22 (58%) 1 8/1/2019 9/23/2020
Florida 4592 3221 (70%) 70 1/1/2018 8/31/2020
Georgia 1353 874 (65%) 8 6/1/2018 10/10/2020
Idaho 74 37 (50%) 0 1/1/2019 8/13/2020
Illinois 195 132 (68%) 1 9/1/2018 6/23/2020
Indiana 2393 1335 (56%) 4 11/1/2017 7/3/2020
Kansas 108 95 (88%) 0 1/12/2020 10/16/2020
Kentucky 5001 2411 (48%) 62 8/1/2017 2/8/2020
Louisiana 1303 769 (59%) 4 1/1/2018 10/16/2020
Michigan 920 738 (80%) 30 8/1/2016 2/5/2020
Minnesota 123 85 (69%) 1 12/16/2018 10/9/2020
Mississippi 187 129 (69%) 0 4/1/2019 2/26/2020
Missouri 697 403 (58%) 2 9/1/2017 3/14/2020
New Hampshire 319 198 (62%) 2 11/1/2018 2/11/2020
New Jersey 623 408 (65%) 7 12/1/2018 2/22/2020
New York (excluding New York City) 391 262 (67%) 0 6/1/2019 10/10/2020
North Carolina 346 223 (64%) 2 1/1/2018 10/7/2020
Ohio 3689 2294 (62%) 16 1/1/2018 10/12/2020
Pennsylvania 863 666 (77%) 14 1/1/2018 10/10/2020
South Carolina 1660 875 (53%) 5 11/1/2018 10/9/2020
Tennessee 3036 1839 (61%) 28 12/1/2017 5/8/2020
Vermont 14 6 (43%) 0 1/1/2019 7/11/2020
Virginia 435 272 (63%) 2 1/1/2019 10/9/2020
Washington 366 212 (58%) 5 4/1/2019 6/22/2020
West Virginia 2702 1366 (51%) 23 3/19/2018 2/28/2020
States with a declared end to their outbreak
Arizona 598 484 (81%) 8 11/1/2018 4/16/2020
California 708 464 (66%) 21 11/1/2016 4/11/2018
Massachusetts 563 442 (79%) 9 4/1/2018 5/29/2020
Nevada 107 94 (88%) 1 11/1/2018 6/18/2020
New Mexico 168 127 (76%) 2 11/8/2018 6/10/2020
Utah 281 152 (54%) 3 5/8/2017 2/12/2019

NR: not publicly reported

  1. “Outbreak-associated” status is currently determined at the state level in accordance with each state’s respective outbreak case definition.
  2. Outbreak-related hepatitis A deaths are defined at the state level in accordance with each state’s respective hepatitis A-related death definition. Some states are reviewing death certificates on a regular basis to actively find hepatitis A-related deaths, while other states are utilizing passive surveillance.
  3. Outbreak start date is defined at the state level and may represent the earliest onset date of an outbreak case (AR, AZ, KS, UT), the left censor date for which cases are considered part of the outbreak based on the state outbreak case definition (AL, CA, CO, DE, FL, GA, ID, IL, IN, KY, LA, MA, MI, MN, MO, MS, NV, NH, NJ, NC, OH, PA, SC, TN, VA, WA), or when a state declared a hepatitis A outbreak (NM, WV).
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

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.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

Opinion

The CDC states that the death-dealing virus that causes COVID-19 spreads predominantly from person to person (P>P). A deeper dive into assessing this transmission route — and its presence in the food industry — may help sharpen intervention tactics.

This assessment starts with a look at an infected person’s cough, sneeze, singing and talking, all giving rise to a discharge of particles from the mouth or nose. Where the term “person” is used, it refers to the internal system of a person where a pathogen either has entered or is given entry.

Heavy particles quickly fall to the floor or any surface in between people. Lighter aerosolized ones remain airborne for up to three hours or more. A room’s air filtration system can be effective in trapping these contaminants. The wearing of masks is a critical intervention. Physical distancing is also a meaningful transmission-preventive action.

If that infected person’s cough or sneeze is self-covered with his or her bare hand instead of the crook of an elbow, it becomes one of those surfaces between the mouth/nose and the floor. Here handwashing or hand sanitizing is the obvious intervention of choice. If that hand were gloved, the glove would need to be changed, with a handwash before donning the new gloves. The better intervention is prevention by catching that cough or sneeze in one’s elbow.

Person-to-person, person-to-surface-to-person & person-to-surface-to-hand-to-person

It can get pretty complicated.

What is the dominant vector transmitting Coronavirus from one person to another? Is it the air we breathe or the hand that moves the virus from a long list of surfaces (fomites) to the nose, eyes or mouth? The CDC recently released an advisory that indicated the aerosolized form was the primary route of transmission. These particles can cause infection when “inhaled into the nose, mouth, airways, and lungs.” “This is thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” 

Three days latter this news was withdrawn with this notice: “CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19),”  “Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.” The current guidance makes no mention of aerosol transmission.

Person-to-surface-to-person (P>S>P) is a legitimate route for the coronavirus to move from one person to another with the surface (fomites) acting as a bridge or a “bus terminal” where the virus awaits a touch, a touch from a living host, needed to sustain its biological activity. This pathogen path is probably reported as a person-to-person transmission. The receiving person is most likely going to self-contaminate by transferring the coronavirus from the hand to the nose, eyes or mouth, completing the trip from Person-To-Surface-To-Hand-To-Person, P>S>H>P. The mouth route is contested by some scientists who say that stomach acids will kill the virus.

The P>S>P route is mostly a P>S>H>P transmission and clearly calls for frequent hand washing or sanitizing as it is all but impossible to keep surfaces TouchReady® clean between re-contaminations. Coronavirus can live on stainless steel and plastics for 2 to 3 days. How often is any high-touch surface touched — like the refrigerator, microwave, bed table or rails? Yes, these surfaces should be cleaned frequently but handwashing or hand sanitizing are the better controls.

A handshake transfer of the virus is an intermediate stage of the more circuitous Person-To-Person trip One’s hand is either contaminated by a self-fielded cough or sneeze or touching a contaminated surface. The handshake moves the pathogen to the next hand where it harmlessly resides until it is moved to the nose, eyes or an open cut or scratch.

Studies have also shown that restroom surfaces could spread this virus as they do with norovirus. According to the CDC, vomiting and diarrhea are both considered symptoms of COVID-19 in some patients. These conditions raise the risk for restroom surfaces. This area is not known to be a major contributing factor in the spread of the virus, however.

Healthcare kitchens and restaurants in general may want to consider their potential exposure to legal actions if a cluster of COVID-19 infections are traced back to foodservice where the legal principle of strict liability may apply. While COVID-19 is not considered a foodborne illness, its contraction in a dining environment may well bring strict liability into play. There is precedent for this in the Chipotle norovirus outbreaks and subsequent litigation. 

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

The COVID-19 pandemic dominated World Food Safety Day events, according to a new report.

The second UN World Food Safety Day in June saw initiatives reshaped for a “new normal” that looks set to affect food safety and food systems for the foreseeable future.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the report at the opening of the Codex Alimentarius Commission. It details 100 activities, events and campaigns held in more than 60 countries and mentions coverage by Food Safety News.

Experts in Asia-Pacific held a webinar, the Pan American Center for Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Veterinary Public Health and Caribbean Public Health Agency shared their perspectives while a Facebook live session was set up by FAO and WHO.

WHO’s regional director for Africa and the Regional Office for Europe offered different geographical opinions and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) hosted a Twitter Q&A.

Coronavirus focus
Food safety experts from international and national organizations, educators and businesses discussed topics such as “COVID-19 and food safety and quality in the world,” organized by Chile’s Food Safety and Quality Agency (ACHIPIA). Experts said several food safety measures also align with COVID-19 precautions such as handwashing and hygiene.

About half of several dozen webinars concentrated on how COVID-19 has changed the food production and safety landscape. Other COVID-related sessions were held by authorities in Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.

COVID-19 forced postponement of a charity run in Germany that was part of a campaign promoting food safety, good nutrition and physical fitness. It is now planned for 2021.

The pandemic also influenced the ways in which food is produced, transported and marketed. Director Generals of FAO and WHO mentioned the role of food workers in ensuring people continue to have access to safe food.

The #WorldFoodSafetyDay hashtag appeared on Twitter an average of 624 times per day in the first two weeks of June. In this period, 78 percent of the tweets that included #WorldFoodSafetyDay were supportive or made a positive reference to the day.

Global input and plans for 2021
WHO and FAO focused the campaign on five calls to action to highlight how everyone can help prevent, detect and manage foodborne risks. These were, ensure it’s safe; grow it safe; keep it safe; eat it safe; and team up for safety. A theme of “safe foods in markets” was introduced to show what governments, producers, vendors and consumers can do to ensure healthy food markets.

Qatar presented the initial draft of an Arab food safety policy during a World Food Safety Day webinar in that country. Suriname’s government linked activities with the ongoing EU-funded FAO initiative, Suriname Agriculture Market Access Project.

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Healthcare focused on food hygiene measures by highlighting the HACCP approach to safe food, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Hygiene Practices (GHP).

The emphasis of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was on training food inspectors and entrepreneurs in a workshop while Luxembourg’s government ran a national food safety quiz.

Looking ahead to the third World Food Safety Day in 2021, the build-up will have started for the UN Food Systems Summit, which will offer the opportunity to consider the role food safety can play in food systems at a global, regional, national and local level and how it intersects with health, food security, climate change, economic inclusion, antimicrobial resistance and trade.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

Food safety standards and trade is one of seven areas in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s COVID-19 response and recovery program.

The United Nations’ agency is calling for $1.2 billion in initial investment to support efforts.

The food safety part has a budget of $50 million and a timeframe until 2024.

Trade measures have been a common feature of the immediate policy response to the outbreak such as import restrictions because of food safety concerns that are not necessarily science-based, according to the FAO.

Digital and infrastructure focus
Key areas include digital solutions promoting the exchange of electronic trade documents, such as e-certificates and the harmonization of food safety and animal health e-certification systems as well as infrastructure supporting improvements in laboratories for food safety analysis.

In line with the UN approach to “build back better” post COVID-19, the overall program aims to mitigate immediate impacts of the pandemic while strengthening the longer term resilience of food systems and livelihoods.

According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), world merchandise trade in 2020 could fall by as much as 32 percent. Estimates from the World Bank predict the pandemic’s economic impact could push about 100 million people into extreme poverty.

The FAO’s Director-General Qu Dongyu said a business as usual approach is not possible anymore.

“We must work very hard to limit COVID-19’s damaging effects on food security and nutrition. We need to be more country-driven, innovative and work closely hand in hand,” Dongyu said.

Regional approach
In Africa, the program will focus on strengthening food safety control systems, improving infrastructure and promoting adoption of digital technology.

In Asia and the Pacific, work will center on technical support to streamline administrative procedures and implement harmonized food safety standards, including the promotion of digital innovations along certain borders.

It will look at export promotion, through technical support to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on compliance with food safety standards in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

In the Near East and North Africa, efforts will prioritize technical assistance in trade facilitation, food safety and post-production efficiency in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

The FAO is planning a regional platform for animal health and phytosanitary assistance including food safety for the 33 countries of the Latin America and Caribbean region by 2024. The agency aims to bring together stakeholders to support phytosanitary activities (pests and plant diseases) and food safety management in the processing, distribution, retail and consumption sectors.

Overall work
The other priority areas are to reinforce a global humanitarian response plan for COVID-19; improve data for decision-making; ensure economic inclusion and social protection to reduce poverty; boost smallholder resilience for recovery; prevent the next zoonotic pandemic through a strengthened One Health approach; and trigger food systems transformation.

Preventing the next zoonotic pandemic has a timeframe of up to 2024 and a budget of $100 million.

COVID-19 originated from an animal source, as have an estimated 60 percent of human infectious diseases. Particularly risky settings for the next pandemic include live animal markets and regions where there is a rise in wild meat consumption.

Family farmers are most at risk, often women and children, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, where medical, veterinary and animal production services are limited and food safety control systems are ill-equipped to prevent, detect and respond to emerging and resurgent zoonotic diseases, according to the FAO.

Mitigation measures include enhancing national and international preparedness and performance during the emergency response, developing policies for spillover containment and strengthening policy implementation.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

 The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, SD, for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus. OSHA proposed a penalty of $13,494, the maximum allowed by law.

Based in Smithfield, VA, Smithfield Foods Inc. will appeal the fine, which spokeswoman Keira Lombardo said is “wholly without merit” because the company took”extraordinary measures” to protect employees from the COVID-19 virus. And during the pandemic, Smithfield took direction from OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But OSHA claims not enough was done to protect Smithfield employees at the Sioux Falls plant, which accounts for about 5 percent of the nation’s pork production. That production was lost during a three-week shutdown. Meat and poultry plants were put under the Defense Production Act on April 28, giving USDA extraordinary powers to have firms maintain production.

At about the same time, OSHA and CDC issued guidance to the facilities that were intended to keep employees from being infected by the virus. The Union Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents Smithfield employees in Sioux Falls, says the OSHA fine is a “slap on the wrist.”

Four Smithfield employees in Sioux Falls died from COVID-19, and 1,294 contracted the virus. More than 7,000 are employed at the plant.

“Employers must quickly implement appropriate measures to protect their workers’ safety and health,” said OSHA Sioux Falls Area Director Sheila Stanley. “Employers must meet their obligations and take the necessary actions to prevent the spread of coronavirus at their worksite.”

OSHA guidance details proactive measures employers can take to protect workers from the coronavirus, such as social distancing measures and the use of physical barriers, face shields, and face coverings when employees are unable to physically distance at least 6 feet from each other. OSHA guidance also advises that employers should provide safety and health information through training, visual aids, and other means to communicate important safety warnings in a language their workers understand.

Smithfield has 15 business days from receipt of the citation and penalty to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Employers with questions on compliance with OSHA standards should contact their local OSHA office for guidance and assistance at 800-321-OSHA (6742). OSHA’s coronavirus response webpage offers extensive resources for addressing safety and health hazards during the evolving coronavirus pandemic.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to help ensure these conditions for America’s workers by setting and enforcing standards and providing training, education, and assistance.

OSHA’s mission is to foster, promote and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

In the B2B market, Bannockburn, IL-based Stericycle’s hand-holding of regulated businesses puts it in a unique position for monitoring almost all recall activity.

And as a result, Stericycle is also well-equipped to offer some insight about the second quarter, ending June 30. It is being remembered as the COVID-19 Quarter because it bore the brunt of the collapse of economic activity because of the pandemic.

Along with its review of second-quarter recall data, Stericycle adds some July data previews.

“Regulatory oversight of food that lapsed earlier in the year began to boom in the middle months as consumer fears rose with continued meat and produce recalls that was capped off with the first-ever nationwide FDA recalls of onions and peaches,” notes Chris Harvey, vice president of crisis solutions at Stericycle Expert Solutions.  

In fact, after the second quarter ended, USDA recalls inched upward in July, and are expected to rise further through the end of the year as attacks directed at the FDA and USDA continue to make headlines, Harvey says.

Stericycle reports that its most recent Recall Index includes findings on how COVID-19 impacts food safety, safety risks that top FDA and USDA priorities, and how FDA’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” blueprint will impact the recall process.

“Some of the most glaring food safety headlines of the second quarter were fueled by food safety and public health advocates who continue to pressure companies and regulators alike for more safeguards,” the Recall Index reports. “We’re used to seeing their perspective in the media, but in some cases, they’ve turned it up a notch.”

For example, it cited Consumer Reports disclosure of potentially harmful levels of arsenic in bottled water manufactured by Whole Foods. Stericycle also pointed to the FDA’s relaxing labeling requirements in light of COVID-19, only to experience media criticism from Food Allergy Research and Education. And during the quarter, vegans at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sought meat testing for SARS-CoV-2 and labeling to disclose industry employees were being sickened and killed. 

While some of their concerns can seem far-fetched, the truth is that when they make headlines, they fuel consumer fear,” the Stericycle report says .“Fear that permeates amid a steady drumbeat of recalls, foodborne illness outbreaks, and limited inspections of food production facilities.”

Stericycle splits food recalls into two categories: FDA and USDA. The FDA-related recalls totaled 7.8 million units in 79 events, which were down 44 percent and 11.5 percent from Q1, respectively.

The USDA was involved in 9 recalls representing 672,000 pounds for a quarterly increase of 2,882 percent. Poultry products dominated the USDA recalls, which accounted for 44.4 percent of the events and 73.9 percent of recalled product weight.

Undeclared allergens accounted for 43 percent of the FDA recall events. It was the 12th consecutive quarter that undeclared allergens were the top cause for recalls, and one-third of those were for undeclared milk.

One French Onion dip was responsible for 86.8 percent of all the FDA recalled units for undeclared allergens. Foreign material caused 69.6 percent of all the pounds involved in USDA recalls.

More from the Stericycle second-quarter report:

  • “FDA recall activity dropped by 44 percent in the second quarter to 79 recalls. Those recalls, however, impacted more than 7.8 million units, representing a decrease of just 11.5 percent.  The decline in the number of events is not surprising given the agency’s limited regulation oversight activities over the last four months. In fact, the number of recalls was just over 20 percent lower in the first quarter of 2019 when the government shuttered for just one month.”
  • “Undeclared allergens remained the top cause of FDA food recalls for the 12th consecutive quarter, accounting for 43 percent of recalls. Of those 34 recalls, more than one-third contained undeclared milk. Mold was the top cause of recalled units for the first time in our tracking of this data, accounting for 86.8 percent of recalled units. This was the result ozone recall of French Onion dip impacting nearly all mold-related units recalled.”
  • “Bacteria contamination was the cause of 13 recalls in the second quarter compared to 36 events in the first quarter. In both cases, listeria was the most common contaminant. This is the fewest recalls due to bacterial contamination that we seen in more than a decade of monitoring this data.”
  • “Produce was the top product category impacted in terms of events at 19 percent; prepared food recalls impacted themes units at 88.1 percent.

Going forward,  Stericycle reports that “FDA food recalls remained on a downward trend in July, with just 26 recalls. Undeclared allergens were the leading cause with 12 recalls, while the presence of foreign material accounted for five recalls. 

The Stericycle report includes these comments about USDA:

  • “USDA recalls saw a slight uptick despite limitations in regulatory oversight, inching up to nine recalls in the second quarter. Recalls impacted about 672,000 pounds, representing a quarter-over-quarter increase of 2882.7 percent.”
  • “Quarterly recall activity remains down significantly with an average of 7.5 recalls a quarter compared with an average quarterly volume of more than 30 recalls over the last three years.”
  • “Foreign material and no inspection were each the cause of one-third of recalls, while 69.6 percent  of pounds recalled were because of foreign material.”
  • “USDA recalls in the second quarter most often impacted poultry products, representing 44.4 percent of all recall events and 73.9 percent of pounds.”

The USDA recalls inched upward in July with 4 recalls, all due to the lack of inspection. “This could signal significant gaps in regulatory oversight that are resulting in missed food safety issues,” Stericycle says.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)