Recent reports of temporary or indefinite closures of meat plants signals some risk to the abundance of food to which we’ve become accustomed. I don’t think we’re bordering on mass food insecurity, but we could see supply shortages and impacts on price, and let’s face it, morale. Here are three key areas food companies should focus on to mitigate risk of COVID-19 in their facilities.
Prevention is best, and so a rigorous employee screening process is essential. Use the standard techniques like forehead temperature checks and questionnaires about symptoms for both the employee and his or her cohabitants. Be courteous and collaborative. These employees are deemed “essential,” and they are under tremendous stress as their lives have been disrupted and yet they are required to report to work. Meanwhile, they likely have unemployed family members and children at home who would otherwise be at work and school. Make sure your policy includes paid sick leave. Over communicate to the workforce about company safety measures to protect their health and about their work hours, pay, and benefits.
Many of the articles about social distancing in food plants and restaurants cite how closely these employees work together while handling food. However, food is being processed or prepared in very sanitary conditions and employees are already wearing PPE, often inclusive of face masks or face shields. I see the bigger risk being in employee common areas like locker rooms, washrooms and breakrooms. Have you stepped up frequency and intensity of janitorial services in those areas? Is the janitorial staff mixing up the right concentrations of disinfectants use on toilets, washroom floors, and sinks? Have you implemented a limited number at a time, sequential, rolling access to these areas for employees so that these rooms are less crowded and they at least have a chance to maintain 6 ft of separation?
Surveillance for SARS-CoV2
I think we are on the verge of food processing plants, restaurant chains, and grocery stores needing to monitor their environments for SARS-Cov2 for cause. What does that mean? It means when/if it is discovered that an employee tested positive for COVID-19, in addition to other corrective measures, the establishment may opt to demonstrate that cleaning and sanitizing measures were sufficient to render the environment free of SARS-CoV2, thereby enabling the facility to remain open or reopen. A study published in Emerging and Infectious Diseases reported on environmental monitoring of a hospital in Wuhan using swabs and air sampling. The samples were analyzed using Quantitative real-time PCR (Q-RT-PCR) assays of SARS-CoV-2 open reading frame 1ab (ORF1ab) and nucleocapsid protein (NP) gene fragments were performed using the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Nucleic Acid Diagnostic Kits (PCR-Fluorescence Probing) (Sansure Biotech Inc., Hunan, China). This rapid test kit was approved by the Chinese Food and Drug Administration earlier in 2020. It was used for air and environmental swabs in the EID paper. Could it be adapted to commercial use for surveillance and monitoring food establishments? Is there an ISO lab out there working on it? I would bet so. In my opinion, ISO accredited micro labs that already perform virology tests for Hepatitis A or Norovirus would be most capable of implementing this type of method and use internal controls in lieu of method accreditation.
As much as we all wish this crisis would abate, I think we face many more months of disruption. However, keeping these three key aspects in place will help your company minimize risk and stay productive.