The food industry has had to quickly adjust to changes in how it operates to ensure supply chain continuity during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Not only are these stakeholders working to protect their employees from COVID-19, but they are also working to ensure the safety of the human and animal foods they produce as they experience changes within their operations.
Over the last several months, the Food & Drug Administration, along with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), have developed a number of resources to help food industry employers continue or resume operations safely. These resources complement the FDA’s long-standing requirements for food producers to protect the safety of the food they produce.
To assist the food industry as it navigates changes to operations related to COVID-19, the FDA has teamed up with OSHA to develop the “Employee Health & Food Safety Checklist for Human & Animal Food Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The checklist pulls from existing guidance provided by FDA, CDC and OSHA and serves as a quick reference to help the food industry assess employee health, social distancing and food safety within workplaces as operations may be affected by COVID-19.
The American Fruit & Vegetable Processors & Growers Coalition (AFVPGC) and the Michael Best Strategies (MBS) Food & Agriculture Team, working closely with Charles Palmer, leader of the Workplace Safety & Health Practice Group at Michael Best, worked successfully with FDA to publish a checklist for food industry safety amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
When OSHA and CDC first issued guidance in the wake of COVID-19 cases in meat and poultry processing facilities, it became apparent that those guidelines did not provide enough specific measures to be easily understood and followed; nor did they capture the unique needs of the food industry.
“The coalition was looking for a practical and specific punch we could point to as good practices,” Denise Bode, head of federal practice for MBS and coalition coordinator for AFVPGC, said.
Industry leaders, like others, were faced with the challenge of requiring rapid response amid conflicting opinions coming from all directions, “but unlike government, schools and some other industries, food production cannot simply halt while the problem is studied and solved,” she continued. "There is no work-from-home option. People don’t stop eating, animals and crops must be processed at a specific time and the products are perishable. We were faced with the potential loss of entire crops. So, the COVID-19 response in the food industry had to be like building an airplane while it is in the air.”
FDA recognized the need for action to protect the nation’s food supply and worked around the clock to take leadership. “They really listened to the industry to pull together something practical and took that guidance to the Department of Labor as a measure to protect American workers and the food supply,” Charles Palmer of Michael Best said. The industry representatives are thankful for the FDA’s leadership on this project as well as OSHA’s assistance and expertise in development of the guidelines.”
The checklist is for FDA-regulated human and animal food operations to use when assessing operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when restarting operations after a shutdown or when reassessing operations because of changes due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
“One thing we learned quickly was the science keeps changing, and the guidelines need to change with it,” said David Crass, co-chair of the Michael Best Agribusiness Food & Beverage Practice group. The guidelines link to external resources, and those links may change over time to reflect the changing conditions. The checklist serves as a launching point to get to the ever-changing guidelines, but rather than having to sift through guidance that may not apply to the food industry, this checklist provides the industry with a porthole leading directly to the resources, practices and procedures for the food industry.
The checklist is broken into two distinct sections. The first section focuses on employee health, screening and operation configuration for social distancing to prevent or minimize the spread of COVID-19 based on guidelines provided by CDC and OSHA. The second section highlights food safety requirements found in existing regulations that can help the food industry assess the potential impact of COVID-19-related operational changes on food safety practices. Some operational changes that could affect food safety include closures or changes among food safety staff or to suppliers or ingredients.
Not all of the items are relevant to all types of food operations. Additional sector-specific information is available -- e.g., guidance from CDC and the U.S. Department of Labor for agricultural workers and employers, seafood processing workers (developed in consultation with FDA) and meat and poultry processing workers and employers.
While this checklist is not a standard that establishes a basis for a fine or liability, should a food sector business miss certain elements on the list, industry members would be wise to shoot for as many of the elements as possible. OSHA can and has cited food sector employers under its General Duty Clause, which requires employers to maintain workplace free of recognized hazards. The basis for some of those citations involved allegations that an employer missed some of the items that are now contained in this checklist.