The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on the food industry across the world. From small, independent food businesses to large-scale food processors, the pandemic has created significant changes to day-to-day operations.
On July 29, the International Association for Food Protections held a COVID-19 & Food Safety Global Summit, discussing the pandemic and its effects on the safety of Food Handlers and food. The summit had over 290 attendees from 24 countries and provided insight into the current situation and the latest research. Here are some of the key discussions and findings about the impact of the pandemic on food workers and food safety:
Some of the speakers at the summit discussed how the pandemic was having direct effects on the food supply chain. 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. This issue isn’t only felt by the big players in the food industry, but the small, independent businesses as well. It is difficult for businesses in the food industry to continue to operate and be successful while dealing with supply shortages or cancellations.
Another key aspect of this discussion is the travel restrictions that have been imposed since the beginning of the pandemic. These travel restrictions ultimately stop 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.
Worries about COVID-19 transmission
Speakers discussed how concerns about COVID-19 transmission, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, caused concerns about packaging. People were concerned, and continue to be concerned, about whether they can contract COVID-19 from deliveries or packages. This has 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.
Challenges with mechanical breakdowns
Machines used in food processing plants need maintenance or have breakdowns from time to time. This is a normal occurrence that before the pandemic was not a difficult situation to address. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, having repairs done in a timely and effective manner is proving to be extremely difficult. In many instances, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, mechanics were not permitted to go to a physical location to fix a problem in person. A lot of times this meant having breakdowns repaired through virtual instruction which comes with significant challenges. This points to how the pandemic is greatly affecting the safety operations of food processing plants when repairs are not being done in person or there is a big wait time to get assistance. This also affects the ability of food processors to meet quotas and get their products out on time.
Implementing physical distancing measures
Keeping workers safely apart is a measure never seen before the pandemic. Implementing physical distancing measures has been a challenge, not only for management but for the workers as well.
Owners have had to take drastic steps to ensure that physical distancing measures are met — sometimes in very difficult situations. Businesses had to address how to physically distance themselves in check-in areas, locker rooms, break rooms, and production lines, just to name a few. Some of these areas are extremely difficult to physically distance in. In areas where physical distancing was difficult or impossible, personal protective wear such as face masks as well as dividers at workstations was 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 in training and enforcement. Food workers have had to adapt to entirely new ways of doing their job which can have an effect on the time it takes to do tasks, efficiency and output.
Requiring face masks
Face masks have become a hot topic during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraged the public to not use face masks as they were needed by frontline health care workers. This has shifted significantly as of late, with face masks being a requirement in many indoor places throughout Canada and many businesses requiring workers to wear face masks at all times. This has changed the way that many food workers conduct their jobs and brought on significant additional 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.
Changes to food safety training
Food safety training, which is a legal requirement for many food workers in Canada, has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Food safety training includes education on pathogens that can cause food-borne illness, including the risk of viruses. However, the risk for viruses focused on 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.
Food safety training also includes discussion on personal hygiene as well as cleaning and sanitizing. The importance of these topics has increased significantly and now includes information on how to clean and sanitize effectively to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as well as the importance of personal protective wear (PPE).
Challenges of COVID-19 training
Along with food safety training, workers in all parts of the food industry are undergoing COVID-19 specific training as well. This includes 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 and how to go about getting tested. COVID-19 training also includes understanding the risks of the coronavirus and how it 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. Some people believe that the coronavirus is fake or has been hyped up, so it is difficult to get them to accept the training and follow protocols. 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.