With millions of American workers staying home to aid public health efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), the security of America’s food supply is more important than ever before. It’s crucial that growers are taking the appropriate measures to ensure food safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do not consider COVID-19 to be a foodborne illness. In addition, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of the disease.
Experts at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) advise produce growers, harvesters, packers and coolers to continue to follow the good hygiene practices they already have in place as part of their food safety programs when handling produce. This includes hand washing and cleaning and sanitizing surfaces often that may contact food or hands.
Many growers are already participating in voluntary audits to verify that their fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.
Mark Lander, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Marion County, says that agricultural workers are essential to a stable and steady food supply.
UF/IFAS held a food safety webinar last week, where Lander shared some information about farmworker safety.
“The conversation starts locally,” Lander says. “We want to educate our growers, educate the community and our workforce as they come into Marion County, or in any county, on how to take care of yourself and your surrounding workforce.” Identifying local healthcare resources and providing labor with those resources before their arrival can also be helpful, he says.
If a COVID-19 case is identified at your facility, Lander suggests calling your local Health Department. At that point, the Health Department will conduct interviews and identify close contacts to the infected person. The Health Department will also make testing and monitoring recommendations to reduce possible spread at the site, as well work with the labor force to identify if the group is leaving the area. If so, they will discuss precautions for their next destination.
To ensure farmworker safety and minimize the spread of the virus, growers should implement the following precautions:
- Promote healthy hygiene practices
- Implement worksite health screenings
- Post signs on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 in appropriate languages for all staff to comprehend
- Avoid use of sharing items that are not easily cleaned, sanitized or disinfected
- Ensure that ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air
- Discourage on-site communal gathering
- Modify commuting practices
For more information regarding food safety and COVID-19, here are some resources:
- International Association for Food Protection: http://www.foodprotection.org/resources/covid-19-resources/
- UF/IFAS: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_covid19
- CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/index.html and https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-agricultural-workers.html#anchor_1590853166963
Ashley Robinson, a communications intern for AgNet Media, wrote this article.