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COVID-19: Ensuring Food Safety & Food Security – The New York Academy of Sciences

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Published June 16, 2020
By Saima Ahmed
Karin Hoelzer
Lee-Ann Jaykus
John Newton
Maximo Torero
The impact of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has rippled through the domestic and global food and agriculture industries, causing disruptions on a scale never seen before. In a crisis such as this, ensuring food safety and strengthening the resilience of our food systems to promote food security for the most vulnerable becomes paramount.
The New York Academy of Sciences hosted two virtual events with experts in food safety and security for a discussion on these pressing topics. On May 18, 2020, Lee-Ann Jaykus, PhD, a William Neal Reynolds Professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University and Karin Hoelzer, DVM, PhD, a Senior Officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts, discussed how the food sector is responding to the pandemic to keep workers safe and the recent changes to the US food oversight system. On May 27th, John Newton, PhD, Chief Economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Maximo Torero, Chief Economist and Assistant Director General for the Economic and Social Development Department at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), explored how the domestic and global food supply chains have been affected during the pandemic and what impacts that is having on our collective food security.

Keeping our Food Safe

Key Takeaways

  • The virus has dramatically impacted the food supply chain worldwide: from consumers to processors and producers.
  • Most of the responses from the food industry have largely been about preventing illness.
  • COVID-19 has directly affected food consumption habits, however, the impact that has on food safety is not yet clear.
  • COVID-19 has resulted in changes to food safety oversight, but data are lacking to fully understand what this means for food safety.

What is known about the virus and how can we contain the spread?

In general, the primary transmission route for SARS-CoV-2 is person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Jaykus described the mechanism of spread through ‘turbulent gas clouds’ consisting of large and small aerosolized droplets that are released through coughing, sneezing, labored breathing, and talking. The large droplets can fall to nearby surfaces relatively quickly while tiny aerosol droplets can linger in the air and travel long distances, prompting the use of masks and disinfectants. Jaykus noted, while masks are not an airtight protection against the virus, their benefit mainly lies in providing reduced aerosol exposure from those infected. Using disinfectants containing ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, or sodium hypochlorite can inactivate the virus within a minute, and prevent further spread as studies show the virus can persist on surfaces for up to nine days.
Recent studies on the transmission of the novel coronavirus reiterate that the main route of entry is the respiratory tract, “with no evidence to date suggesting that consumption of contaminated food can cause the virus”, said Jaykus. However, she explained researchers have not ruled out the possibility for a small amount of virus to contaminate food, which in turn can come into contact with the respiratory tract. Since the chances of that happening are very low, Jaykus says COVID-19 should not be considered a food-borne disease.

How has the food industry responded?

As COVID-19 rapidly spreads across the country, the food industry experienced a number of challenges from concerns about seasonal workers and increased patronage at grocery stores to shutdown of meat processing and food manufacturing facilities. Jaykus noted that responses from the food industry have differed by sector.
In general, all sectors have taken steps to slow the spread and ensure the safety of their workers, including implementation of employee screening programs; increased sanitation and hygiene practices; required use of personal protective equipment and employing social distancing; and closing meat and processing facilities for sanitation. Overall, Jaykus says these responses were put in place by the industry sectors primarily to prevent illness in people exposed by respiratory or environmental contamination routes.

Food safety oversight: a fragmented system

As Americans continue to stockpile food, many are questioning whether the food is safe, and what is being done in terms of food safety oversight. “Unfortunately, food safety oversight is a very fragmented and complex system”, says Hoelzer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and state and local government agencies all share regulatory oversight over food safety. To add to the complexity, at least thirteen other federal agencies share some food safety responsibilities.
The FDA placed a temporary pause on routine on-site inspections of food manufacturing facilities and farms, mainly due to worker safety concerns. Relaxation of some food labeling and oversight provisions have also been put in place, as food originally destined for restaurants had to be rerouted to meet increased demand in grocery stores. While routine inspections have been suspended, for-cause inspections, such as those prompted by contamination problems or foodborne outbreaks, will continue. FSIS continues to inspect meat- and poultry-processing facilities, which by law cannot operate without the presence of a federal inspector.

What does this mean for food safety?

“The truth is, we don’t really know,” explained Hoelzer, because sufficient data are not available to assess the full impact of COVID-19 on food safety. The number of recalls reported during recent months seem to be consistent with numbers reported before the pandemic, indicating that the virus has had little to no impact on food safety thus far.
Hoelzer said there are a number of things that can be done on an individual level to ensure proper food handling and follow food safety practices. This includes regular hand washing using soap and water for 20 seconds, including after handling food packaging or delivery containers; frequently cleaning and disinfecting high traffic surfaces such as countertops or refrigerator handles; using clean dishes and utensils; cooking food thoroughly as heat kills viruses as well as foodborne bacteria; and lastly, thoroughly washing fresh produce with water.

Protecting Food Security during the Pandemic

Key Takeaways:

  • Social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders have significantly impacted the US food supply chain, with opposing supply and demand forces at play.
  • High levels of unemployment and rising commodity prices will add pressure on food insecure households across the country.
  • Disruptions to the food supply chain were primarily due to logistical issues, not supply.
  • The number of food insecure individuals will continue to grow, even in places that aren’t traditionally identified as conflict areas where food security is an inherent issue.

Food supply chain & food security: domestic angle

The global pandemic has stressed the domestic and global food system like never before, leading to a considerable shift in consumer food consumption patterns. Newton described these shifts with data from February to April of this year showing US grocery store sales ramped up by 15% to $63 billion, whereas restaurant sales experienced a steep 47% drop to $32 billion. During this period, many companies who previously serviced the restaurant industry had to move their product to grocery stores and producers who lost their markets had to destroy their specialty crops. Additionally, farmers who had to cut back on their processing capacity, were seen dumping milk and plowing under their fields across the country. Meat packing facilities were no exception, where a rise in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases led many of these plants to run at less than full capacity, or close entirely. This impacted meat availability in grocery stores throughout the country, resulting in price increases. In contrast, other producers saw prices for their market ready livestock that were ready for processing, fall dramatically. US commodities such as milk, bread, pasta and eggs also experienced a price increase, with egg prices increasing by 38% in April. “We see opposite supply and demand forces at play, one pushing farm prices lower with the other pushing retail prices higher”, said Newton.

What does this mean for food security domestically?

According to the FAO, food security is defined as “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to meet dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” With US unemployment at depression-era levels, impacts on food security is very likely. While food security is directly related to per capita GDP, Newton says “high levels of unemployment and rising commodity prices will pressure food insecure households across the country,” especially in rural areas where poverty and food insecurity were already at high levels. To prepare for this, food provisions of the CARES Act rescue package will boost nutrition program funding by $24.6 billion. As part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program (CFAP), the USDA is also rolling out a ‘farmers to families food box program’ to provide assistance to both farmers and consumers. Through this program, the USDA plans to partner with suppliers, whose workforce has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 related closures, and purchase products such as produce, meat and dairy, totaling $1.2 billion for distribution among the needy.

Food supply chain & food security: global angle

Torero discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on the global food system in three phases. The first phase, ‘containment’, otherwise known as the lockdown period, has had major impacts on the global food system due to logistical issues. “Essentially, there were issues over labor, with varying effects depending on the commodity,” said Torero. While staple commodities experienced minor logistical complications, high value commodities, generally more labor intensive, were more problematic. As a result, many countries started to enact food export restrictions, driving up the price of these commodities. However, global stocks of staple foods were available in sufficient quantities, showing no reason for panic.

What does this mean for food security globally?

The current global labor force includes over 1.2 billion jobs in the food system, who, when accounting for their families, contribute to the livelihoods of over three billion people. As a result of the pandemic, close to half a billion jobs are at risk, ultimately affecting over one billion livelihoods. Torero described the second phase as anticipated ‘consequences’ from the lockdowns, where food will be available, but “there will be a lack of income to buy the food you need.” FAO has modeled the impact of reduced GDP on undernourishment. Using this model, a mild impact scenario consisting of a 5% reduction in GDP growth could lead to an additional 38 million undernourished individuals. In the severe scenario, with a 10% GDP reduction, we can expect a situation with 80 million undernourished individuals, and a more probable outcome if we experience a second wave of infections.
To mitigate the impact the pandemic can have on food security, Torero described the third phase, the ‘health-food-development trilogy’, as a to-do list of nececessary steps to to ensure proper safety protocols are put in place as countries begin to re-open. He expressed the need for data to determine where the new ‘hot spots’ of food insecurity will be in order to assure food access for the most vulnerable populations. In order to increase food availability and meet the immediate needs of food insecure populations, he stressed the need to reduce post-harvest crop losses, improve food stocks along the supply chain, and remove any constraints to domestic mobility of foods.
As the world navigates through these unprecedented and unchartered territories, efforts to flatten the curve remain a high priority, but they bring with them numerous challenges. While data seem to indicate that COVID-19 will not have a major impact on food safety, food security requires urgent action at the global and country levels to ensure food security for all.

For more resources and information, please visit the Academy’s coronavirus page.

See the May 18 Food Safety Webinar Recording
See the May 27 Food Security Webinar Recording
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