The ongoing coronavirus pandemic offers no threat to the safety of ingredients or finished food and beverage products, as it is a fragile virus that can’t stand up to cooking temperatures or the industry’s already rigid cleaning and sanitation requirements.
“The food industry has a great message when it comes to coronavirus and food safety,” says Shawn Stevens, founder, Food Industry Counsel. “Food companies are really the only companies on Earth—with perhaps the exception of pharmaceuticals—that routinely clean and sanitize the inside of the facility, and do aggressive deep cleaning and sanitation on a daily basis. So they are, by definition, some of the most sterile environments in the world.”
But the pandemic does present challenges for worker safety, and processors must be proactive in addressing those challenges in an effective way. With the virus rapidly spreading and widespread testing still coming online, processors need to be aware of how they can protect their people.
Processors are taking a number of different steps, ranging from moderate to more comprehensive. Some companies are focusing on employee education, such as reminding workers about hygiene requirements, providing information on symptoms and transmission and putting in place a reporting process for employees who are showing symptoms or have been in recent contact with someone who tested positive.
Others are taking more aggressive steps, such as asking visitors where they have recently traveled or taking employees’ temperatures before their shifts begin. Such measures are potentially intrusive, and Stevens recommends checking with local health officials for guidance on what employers can and cannot do to screen for possible coronavirus infections. Working with employees to develop a plan that helps both the company and its workers is key to putting a system in place that gets buy-in and is effective.
“There will be more flexibility and more tolerance if it’s cast by the company as really a benefit, looking out for the interests of their health,” says Stevens. “If they have an elevated temperature, they have access to a COVID-19 test. If they test positive, that they’ll be paid for the time that they’re not able to come to work. These need to be very comprehensive programs if they’re going to be done right.”
Health departments and other government officials can also provide guidance on concerns such as the number of people in one place at one time. While food and beverage production is considered critical and is not a business that will be ordered to close down, guidelines for managing the size of groups can still be followed in some ways, says Stevens.
“I might look at things like are employees congregating at the gate or at the door before entering, and do we need to stagger them? Are employees congregating in the break room, where we have a small room and four dozen employees? Do we need to segregate breaks, or create additional break space?
“Those are the types of refinements to the rules that are already in place that will be provided to the industry by public health agencies as this progresses,” he says. “I would say keep abreast of what those are and work in earnest to follow them to the best extent possible.”