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The COVID-19 Outbreak and Food Production

Food and beverage industry workers are deemed essential to critical infrastructure; FDA suspends some inspections.

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As most people are aware, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the COVID-19 virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person through close contact or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

According to AIB International’s “Food First” blog in mid-March, most of CDC’s information is based on past experience with other coronavirus outbreaks, though each virus can evolve differently. AIB International states that vigorous enforcement of good hygiene practices, good manufacturing practices, and validated kill-steps are vital in food processing environments. The blog also says processors should use alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol for hand washing, and strictly follow sick employee rules.

The Consumer Brands Association and 60 other industry associations strongly urged federal, state, and local leaders in a March 18 letter to follow federal guidelines in exempting consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturing facilities, including suppliers and truck drivers, from gathering restrictions and curfews related to the coronavirus.

By March 19, the government responded, freeing essential workers to continue. The list below identifies workers who conduct a range of operations and services that are essential to continued critical infrastructure viability, including staffing operations centers, maintaining and repairing critical infrastructure, operating call centers, working construction, and performing management functions, among others. The industries they support represent, but are not necessarily limited to, medical and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, law enforcement, and public works. 

While food industry leaders are doing all they can to protect the supply chain, disruptions such as ingredients not coming in from foreign supplies, may occur.

“Currently, there are adequate processed food supply reserves in the pipeline," says Dave Park, principal at Food Defense, LLC. Ultimately, the risk of future shortages in some food segments will force  processors to adapt to rapidly changing patterns of consumer spending and their traditional vectors of accessibility to food, Park adds. "Depending upon the actual degree of adverse food and transportation public health consequences, financial market uncertainties, loss of employment of trained food segment employees, food-worker and transportation labor shortages and impacts of social and physical distancing, there will be some noticeable disruptions in food manufacturing, food distribution and just-in-time retail food deliveries. Those food manufacturers who already have continuity of operations plans (COOP) prepared, in place and practiced as part of a total food protection plan will fare the best in weathering our current Covid-19 public health crisis,” he states. 

Food and beverage manufacturers are meeting the challenges by boosting pay for plant workers, having non-plant floor employees work at home, producing fewer SKUs to gain increased output, and switching more manufacturing resources from foodservice to retail production. Plants are also restricting non-essential visitors, causing some delays in manufacturing improvement projects.

Foreign inspections postponed, domestic suspended

As of March 18, FDA temporarily postponed all domestic routine surveillance facility inspections. These are facility inspections traditionally conducted every few years based on a risk analysis. All domestic for-cause inspection assignments will be evaluated and will proceed if mission-critical.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, FDA has postposed most foreign inspections through April, with inspections outside the U.S. deemed mission-critical considered on a case-by-case basis.

FDA based the decision on factors such as the State Department’s Level 4 travel advisories which prohibits travel for U.S. government employees, CDC travel recommendations, access restrictions being imposed on foreign visitors by certain countries, guidance from the Office of Personnel Management, and the health and safety of its employees. Another critical factor in taking this action is the confidence, says FDA, in its ability to maintain the oversight of international manufacturers and imported products using alternative tools and methods. When FDA is not able to physically inspect foreign-produced FDA-regulated products or manufacturers, it will employ other tools that have proved effective in the past, such as:

  • Denying entry of unsafe products into the U.S.
  • Physical examinations and/or product sampling at borders
  • Reviewing a firm’s previous compliance history
  • Using information sharing from foreign governments as part of mutual recognition and confidentiality agreements.

FDA began exercising this authority when it postponed on-the-ground inspections of manufacturers of FDA-regulated products in China earlier in the COVID-19 outbreak. Through its risk-based import screening tool (PREDICT), the agency has the ability to focus examinations and sample collections based on heightened concerns of specific products entering U.S. commerce. The PREDICT screening tool will adjust risk scores as necessary throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.

Other stories you may like:

How ProMach, Inc. is Navigating COVID-19 Abroad and at Home 

See PMMI's Coronavirus response resources by clicking here.


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