What did we learn about food safety and food security from the pandemic?

By Gönül Kaletunc

First, the good news! No farm workers have died due to COVID-19 related outbreaks in Ohio according to data collected by the Food & Environment Reporting Network. COVID-19 cases and related deaths in agriculture mainly occurred in the meat processing industry.

As a direct impact of COVID-19 pandemic to human health in Ohio, 1.1 million people were infected with virus and 20,000 lives were lost (through May 24, 2021). COVID-19 is a respiratory disease transmitted by direct uptake of droplets or aerosols produced by a person infected with coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Coronavirus in droplets landing on surfaces may remain infectious and may be transmitted to humans who touch the surfaces and then their faces. However, it is not known whether the amount of contamination on surfaces is sufficient to make a person sick. Maintaining a good hygiene such as washing hands is important to prevent virus transmission as well as wearing a mask.

Since the economy was shut down in March 2019, we have learned valuable lessons about our food. Food come from farms, transported to food processors, packaged, and then trucked locally or nationally to grocery stores. It is important for anyone involved in the production and distribution chain to practice good hygiene not to spread the virus and other diseases. 

Can you get COVID-19 by eating food? No, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. You can get bacterial infection because bacteria, a complete living cell itself, can grow on food but SARS-CoV-2 cannot grow on food. For all viruses, a living host cell is required to survive and replicate itself. Once in a human body, SARS-CoV-2 hijacks the machinery of human cells to force them rapidly create thousands of copies of the virus.

There is a dynamic relationship among human health, food security, and food safety. A disruption in food safety affects both food security and human health. Upon correction of the food safety issue, a recovery is observed first in human health then in food security. This relationship becomes more complex when a pandemic such as the COVID-19 outbreak occurs. The ability to purchase food is jeopardized by job losses, poverty, production losses and disrupted food distribution logistics. 

COVID-19 cases and deaths are the highest in meat processing branch of the food industry, both in the U.S. and Ohio. The ratio of cases to outbreaks is 4 to 5 times higher in meat processing than in farm and other food processing industry segments. The most likely cause was the lack of “protective conditions.” Because of outbreaks, several plants closed for days or weeks, resulting in empty meat cases at the grocery. 

A large meat processing plant in Germany had 1,413 employees testing positive (a super spreading event) because one employee previously contacted an infected person. Transmission was observed at a 25-foot distance, well beyond the recommended 6-foot distancing, although cool air is recirculated. Fresh air and filtering devices were necessary to reduce infection rates. 

We learned that safety in a plant during a pandemic requires wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, and following good hygiene such as cleaning surfaces and hand washing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed guidelines for the food industry, especially meat processing plants. The measures included: educating workers, temperature checks, mask use, hand washing, aligning work stations to maintaining a 6-foot distance between individuals, and adding physical barriers such as plexiglass. Employers also adopted many changes including staggering shifts, offering testing, reducing animal processing rates, and telling sick workers to stay home. (It is logical to maintain these food safety guidelines after pandemic all the time.)

The COVID-19 outbreak caused disruption of supply chains for some products. The food industry supplies items packaged in small quantities through retail markets and in bulk quantities for restaurants and larger food service facilities. Closing schools and restaurants created a logistical challenge as well. Packaging and portions are much different for schools, restaurants, and supermarkets. 

The amount of milk produced on farm per day did not change. The number of animals ready for harvesting did not change. But issues between the farm and market caused shortages in the retail market. Many consumers shifted to more online shopping including food purchases. Retail food stores made changes to ensure the safety of shoppers and workers. Workers in the food chain, including supermarkets, were viewed as essential workers. Therefore, their protection is essential for ensuring a safe food supply. The impact of COVID-19 on food security was severe for many people, including those who lost jobs and for others due to production losses. 

The food industry was not ready to response to pandemic initially. However, with the help from regulators, intervention protocols were put in place which should be maintained for future adverse events, including but not limited to pandemics. Policy makers should understand issues faced by consumers, producers, and supply chain distributors. Policies based on lessons learned from the pandemic must be adopted to improve the food system’s resilience and preparedness at local and national levels for emergencies. 

Families have learned lessons also, such as storing a few more cans of food in the pantry, maintaining good hygiene all time, following the guidelines set in public places, maintaining the physical distance during shopping, and washing fruits and vegetables at home for a nutritious and healthy diet.  

Gönül Kaletunç, Professor and food safety engineering specialist, can be reached at 614-292-0419, or kaletunc.1@osu.edu. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, OSU Extension, Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center, and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. A longer version of this article can be requested from the author. 

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