In yesterday’s International Association for Food Protections’ Global Summit, experts in food safety from corporate and academic sectors discussed mitigation efforts that are being used to protect food workers from COVID-19 risks.

Speakers for the summit’s third of three sessions included:

  • John Donaghy, Head of Food Safety, Nestle S.A.
  • Michelle Danyluk, Professor, Food Science, University of Florida
  • Ruth Petran, Senior Corporate Scientist, Food Safety & Public Health, Ecolab
  • Sharon Brunelle, AOAC Technical Consultant
  • Kalmia (Kali) E. Kniel, Professor, Microbial Food Safety, Department of Animal & Food Sciences, University of Delaware

Navigating COVID in the Food Supply Chain
John Donaghy, head of food safety for Nestle S.A. 

Donaghy presented “lessons from the land of lockdown” on how Nestle has dealt with the pandemic. Nestle is a global company with factories even in China, which put the company on the front line of dealing with and adapting to this pandemic. He explained that information about the coronavirus started as a trickle and turned into an avalanche of data. The company’s first priority was the health and safety of workers, followed by protecting business continuity.

A number of factors worked together to make producing enough food possible:

  • Panic buying was increasing the demand for products.
  • Shortage of workers to harvest and package food.
  • License to operate changed and depended largely on the country the facility was located in.
    • Some countries insisted that workers with underlying conditions could not go to work.
    • Some countries said that Nestle’s food business was not essential work.

Nestle has thousands of suppliers, many of which were not able to supply for periods during this pandemic. On site visits have had to stop amid travel restrictions and now Nestle has had to do off site audits.

“We had to reassure them about the safety of packaging,” Donaghy said. People who listened to the news were worried about where the packages came from, and if they could get sick from the contents.

“A piece of equipment doesn’t know a pandemic is going on,” Donaghy said, explaining how normal problems and breakdowns became bigger issues. Mechanics and experts on machines could not get to the places to fix things in person. This required things to be fixed through virtual instruction.

There was also a massive move to eCommerce. Nestle had to shift to new types of packaging and increase significantly the number of eCommerce products they were producing.

Other strategies and points of control for Nestle included everything from locker rooms to more buses.

Administrative and engineering solutions
Physical distancing: not just in the production area

  • Transport
  •  Check-ins
  • Locker rooms,
  • Canteens/breakout rooms
  • Production lines

Added restrictions and distancing solutions

  • More busses for distanced transportation
  • PPE
  • Dividers at work stations

Questions about how to proceed in the beginning
Donaghy talked about how face masks and whether or not to wear them became a big issue and evolving issue during the past few months. The availability of masks was questioned when the World Health Organization initially told the public not to wear masks to save them for healthcare workers. Other issues that arose were questions of where to procure masks, how to train/educate on wearing masks, whether masks needed to be disposed of, or could be reuse or washed.

Food Safety and COVID Employee Training
Michelle Danyluk, professor of food science, University of Florida
Danyluk provided information on how food workers’ food safety training has changed. The approach now includes a focus on viral pathogens, she said before listing other factors.

Risk of virus spread was focused on the fecal-oral route and now includes a respiratory route and person to person transmission.

Emphasis on hand hygiene/washing and personal hygiene now includes an emphasis on exposure risks outside the workplace.

Focus on cleaning and sanitizing must now add mask use as PPE.

Social distancing
It must be explained that 6 feet is not a magical number that the virus can’t move beyond, more distance is better, the professor said. Dunyluk explained that “these discussions are not easy for workers to have.”

Challenges with COVID Training
Danyluk, frankly, is concerned about a lack of concern. No direct emotional connection is also a negative factor in her opinion.

People think precautions infringe on rights or that the whole thing is fake, “just the flu” she said. Complicating the problems are a lack of hard science and vaccine reluctance. Understanding the bullet points of transmission is key for workers.

  • Social distancing/remote training
  • Pre/asymptomatic transmission
  • Risk factors outside of the workplace

Agricultural workers have a reduced risk of transmission because they are outside, but there’s still risk. “Hard for them to understand the risk,” Danyluk explained. “They think (low-risk) means no risk.”

Danyluk emphasized the importance of employee trust, that workplaces must convince workers that they care if they get sick.

Mask challenges 

  • How to wear them — they need to cover both the nose and mouth
  • Hot and uncomfortable
  • Disbelief about their efficacy

Lastly, Danyluk explained how these efforts can become more difficult with the spread of misinformation in media and social media.

Implementing an optimal hygiene program
Ruth Petran, senior corporate scientist for food safety and public health for Ecolab
Petran explained that an overall risk-based approach for COVID-19 management should include considerations for implementing an optimal hygiene program.

The challenge Petran presented is to answer the question — How can we optimally manage risks of a new illness agent that we are still learning about?

“The good news is that coronavirus is a small-enveloped virus. Enveloped viruses are the least resistant to disinfection, which means disinfectants can be used to effectively kill coronavirus on surfaces,” Petran said.

There can be confusion, however, about the differences between various procedures — Cleaning removes soil; sanitizing reduces the number of bacteria; disinfecting destroys bacteria and viruses; and we need to use disinfecting against Sars-CoV- 2.

Four steps

  1. Pre-clean
  2. Disinfect
  3. Wait
  4. Dry

Key Points

  • Consider the relevant risks
  • Sanitizers and disinfectants can help manage risks
  • Choose the right product
  • Use it properly, following the label
  • Verify implementation of hygiene protocols

AOAC RI Emergency Response Validation for Detection of SARS-CoV-2 on Surfaces
Sharon Brunelle, AOAC technical consultant 

In Brunelle ‘s talk, she explained how AOAC Research Institute is working on validating commercial proprietary SARS-CoV-2 test kits for surfaces. More information on AOAC RI SARS-CoV-2 tests can be found on their website.

How might wastewater surveillance fit into the big picture of detection and control?
Kali Kniel, professor of  microbial food safety in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, University of Delaware

Last in the IAFP Global Summit session, Kniel talked briefly about how wastewater surveillance is being used as a method of early coronavirus outbreak detection.

“Now it (wastewater surveillance) is being used to find an increase in SARS-CoV-2 in areas.”

Though this process is early in its development, Kniel thinks it has exciting potential to get ahead of the curb in dealing with the virus. “Why we still don’t know the best fit, it is a complementary tool for surveillance.”

The summit was partially sponsored by the Seattle law firm Marler Clark LLP. Founding partner Bill Marler is publisher of Food Safety Website.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here)