The International Association for Food Protections held a COVID-19 & Food Safety Global Summit on July 29, which discussed how the pandemic is affecting food safety and food workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has had far reaching effects on the food industry, from small, independent food businesses to large-scale food processors and everything in between.
The summit had over 290 attendees from 24 countries and speakers were able to provide vital information about the current situation. Here are some of the key discussions and findings from the summit:
Some of the speakers at the summit discussed how the pandemic was having direct effects on suppliers and how this was having ripple effects on the whole industry. John Donaghy, head of food safety for Nestle S.A., stated that Nestle has thousands of suppliers and many of them were not able to continue supplying during the pandemic. This was a big challenge to mitigate and continues to be a struggle as the pandemic continues on. Small, independent businesses are dealing with supplier shortages as well.
Travel restrictions were also discussed at the summit and how they have stopped on-site visits for regular audits, which means that the audits have been switched to off-site audits. While these have been working in the interim, there are questions about the sustainability of this model and whether food safety can be maintained adequately.
COVID-19 transmission concerns
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were significant concerns about contracting COVID-19 from packaging. Concerns have caused food suppliers to implement stringent measures when delivering supplies and food businesses are taking extra precautions when receiving packages. Not only has this caused extra steps to be added to the delivering and receiving process, but it has caused fear and hesitation around package handling. Some speakers stated that they had to reassure people about the safety of the packages as they were worried they could get sick from the contents.
Mechanical maintenance hurdles
Machines used in food processing plants can break down occasionally and they also require maintenance. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, having repairs done in a timely and effective manner is proving to be extremely difficult. In many instances, mechanics were not permitted to go to a physical location to fix a problem in person, but had to repair the problem through virtual instruction instead. The pandemic is greatly affecting the safety operations of food processing plants by creating hurdles for having repairs done in a timely and efficient manner. This also causes ripple effects on the food industry as a whole by affecting production times and meeting quotas.
Physical distancing enforcement
Implementing physical distancing measures continues to be a challenge. Owners have had to take drastic steps to ensure that physical distancing measures are met — sometimes in very difficult situations. Just some of the areas that businesses have had to enforce physical distancing include:
- check-in areas
- locker rooms
- break rooms
- production lines
- transportation buses
The summit addressed how enforcing physical distancing in some of these areas is extremely difficult. In areas where physical distancing was difficult or impossible, personal protective wear such as face masks as well as dividers at work stations were acquired.
Speakers also discussed the difficulty for food workers in adjusting to the new expectations of their workplace. Maintaining physical distance has been difficult to get used to and has required time and effort on training and enforcement. Food workers have had to adapt to entire new ways of doing their job which can have an effect on the time it takes to do tasks, efficiency and output.
Face mask requirements
In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraged the public to not use face masks as they were needed for frontline heath care workers. This has shifted significantly as of late, with face masks being mandatory for residents in Victoria as of Sunday, August 2 due to a concerning spike in COVID-19 cases. In all other states masks are encouraged but not mandated at this time but could change depending on case numbers and evidence of community transmission.
As for food workers, wearing face masks has changed the way that jobs are conducted and has brought on challenges including:
- where businesses can get face masks
- how to train/educate workers on proper face masks usage
- how to dispose of face masks
- how to wash and dry reusable face masks
- how to deal with discomfort from wearing face masks
- how to work in hot conditions with face masks
These factors continue to be of concern as businesses continue to operate during the pandemic. These are unprecedented times and there is still a lot to learn about how food businesses and food producers can operate safely and efficiently with this PPE.
Food safety training changes
In Australia, the Food Standards Code requires anyone who works with food to be trained in food safety. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, food safety training has changed. Here are a few major differences in food safety training today:
Food safety training includes education on pathogens that can cause food-borne illness, including the risk of viruses. However, the risk for viruses focused around fecal-oral routes of transmission and this has now changed due to the pandemic. Food safety training now includes discussions on viral pathogens and respiratory routes of infections, as well as person-to-person transmission.
Hygiene, cleaning and sanitising
Food safety training also includes discussion on personal hygiene as well as cleaning and sanitising. The importance of these topics has increased significantly and now includes information on how to clean and sanitise effectively to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as well as the importance of personal protective wear (PPE).
COVID-19 training challenges
COVID-19 specific training is of the utmost importance during these times for all workers in food industry. This training includes but is not limited to:
- the signs and symptoms of COVID-19
- what to do if you or someone at work falls ill with COVID-19
- how to report an illness
- how to get tested for COVID-19
- the risks of COVID-19
- how COVID-19 is transmitted
Speakers at the summit addressed the challenge with this training, citing the difficulty in overcoming misinformation about COVID-19 circulating on the Internet. An abundance of misinformation is causing some people believe that the coronavirus is fake or is not serious, which makes it difficult to get them to accept the training and follow protocols. It is evident that continued education about COVID-19 and the seriousness of the virus is needed in order to keep businesses safe and workers abiding by essential safety protocols.