Since the beginning of the pandemic, consumers as well as producers and processors have been concerned about the possibility of food causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). To date, there has been no known transmission of COVID-19 through food, and various factors continue to make this scenario unlikely.
First, it has been determined that contact surfaces play a smaller role in the transmission of the virus than previously thought, and very few clusters or illness have been related to this source of transmission.
In addition, we have seen several superspreader events related to meat workers in processing plants, yet we have seen no illnesses from foods produced in those plants. If it were possible for so many infected individuals to contaminate the food produced in these plants with enough infective viral particles to in turn infect consumers, we have yet to see it. These superspreader events are caused by person-to-person contact between workers and the wider community, not the food produced in plants with infected workers.
Most importantly, food safety standards are already designed to reduce transmission of enteric viruses. These standards also serve as procedures and precautions to reduce risk when it comes to COVID-19. It is more important than ever that processors ensure their employees are following and enforcing these standards.
If the food safety standards and procedures in place did not prevent the contamination of food with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), preparation methods could also reduce its spread. As a coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 is easily killed by heat. That means that regular cooking procedures eliminate the virus on contaminated food products before consumption. Regular handwashing and cleaning of food contact surfaces and utensils, as already recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), also reduce the risk.
Considering this, uncooked fresh fruit and vegetables would pose the greatest risk, especially if held at low temperature, as there is a theory that lower temperatures increase COVID-19 survival. However, it is important that consumers not try to address this by washing their produce in bleach or soap; thorough rinsing with water alone is advised. Washing with bleach or detergent is, in fact, more dangerous than the low risk of COVID-19 in these products, and it is vital that messaging against these practices continues to be released by the USDA, FDA, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
We do not know if infection is possible if somehow all these hurdles are overcome and SARS-CoV-2 is present on food at the time of ingestion. More research is needed to determine whether infection can occur through ingestion, but we already know the pH of the human stomach would be a major hurdle for a coronavirus. We are unsure if enough viral particles could survive to reach the intestines and, once there, cause infection.
Aside from concerns about COVID-19 infection from food, there is another food safety issue related to the pandemic. A decreased workforce resulting from employee illness may cause difficulties in effectively implementing a thorough food safety plan. However, as previously stated, an effective food safety plan is more important than ever. Every effort must be made to maintain these standards even with staffing shortages.
With all this being said, foodborne infection by the coronavirus remains a scenario of concern to the food industry, which has prompted researchers around the world to investigate the possibility of food being a vector for COVID-19 infection. The key in this research is to discover the survivability of infectious viral particles on different foods (particularly fresh fruits and vegetables that will not be cooked) at various storage conditions. The presence of viral RNA alone is not sufficient to definitively answer the question of the possibility of COVID-19 through foodborne transmission.
Facility/Personnel COVID-19 Protection Strategies
Lessons learned were hard earned during the early stages of COVID-19, when U.S. decision makers at all levels struggled to gain access to the kinds of best data that would help address immediate needs and also build foundations so that longer-term strategies could be developed. Many miscalculations were made in the early months of the pandemic. Some were the result of the need for expediency, others because of the seemingly constantly shifting sands of federal guidelines.
Companies frequently struggled to discern whether the federal government was issuing guidelines or mandates. Since CDC does not normally interact directly with agribusiness, and particularly food processing, the agency’s ascendancy to being the lead on COVID-19 standards introduced another level of complexity into an environment already fraught with uncertainty. CDC created further controversy by shifting guidelines that seemed at times to contradict or significantly alter earlier directives. One food corporation official summarized the problem by saying, “The agencies appeared at times to not be sure of themselves.” Looking back, that statement appears to be correct.
How one observed shifting federal and state guidelines often depended upon the domain in which one served. Agribusiness and bureaucracies have very different worldviews, which can at times lead to friction. Federal and state bureaucracies regulate, but they have little insight into how food is actually produced, processed, or marketed. Conversely, agribusiness, particularly at the producer/processor level, is often unaware of the processes by which regulations or guidelines are developed. The contrasts can often lead to communication barriers or misunderstandings.
COVID-19 further exacerbated issues associated with these contrasting worldviews. Whereas federal and state officials naturally altered guidelines as new information about the pandemic became available, agribusiness sought clarity and decisiveness. One company official summarized the frustration by saying, “Tell me what I am supposed to do and then stick with it, so I can do it.”
Seven Select Examples of Lessons Learned
- Federal and state governments, as well as agribusiness, are not equipped for “on the fly” decision making. Processes and standards are by design rigid and therefore not easily changed if conditions change significantly.
- The interface of food processing and government was not thought to be a risk factor, until it was. Neither the regulatory side nor the business side had developed adequate contingency plans because of the newness of the problems encountered.
- Personnel emerged as the primary issue. Agribusiness functions as efficiently as it does because personnel, both business based and from the government, make it possible. Remove personnel (in this case because of illness), and the system of systems starts to experience single-point failures that rapidly cascade. The food processing industry discovered that the loss of federal or state inspectors affected processes and output just as quickly as the loss of workers on the food line.
- The food chain consists of a series of interdependencies that begin with the producer, which moves products via logistical systems into the processing system. The products leave the processor via other logistical systems that deliver to retail food outlets, which in turn serve the consumer. Logistical systems experienced problems when other links in the food chain experienced disruptions or were thrown out of sync because of things happening in other parts of the food chain.
- Retail food operations turned out to be even more vulnerable than the food processing industry because of unintended consequences resulting from state and local lockdowns that shuttered restaurants and public school cafeterias, backing up food that would normally have been consigned there. The loss of these markets meant fruit, produce, and other perishable items had no place to go. Produce meant for restaurants and school cafeterias, for example, was left in fields to rot at a time when grocery stores were experiencing other kinds of shortages (e.g., meat and eggs).
- Food companies had no means to quickly relabel and repackage food products or develop direct-to-consumer sales.
- The consumer public experienced localized and variable food shortages. Some shortages were actual (due to a variety of causes), while others were induced by demand. Overdemand (panic buying) exacerbated the problems and caused grocery and big-box stores to ration.
Workplace-related issues (social distancing, masks, etc.), strategies, processes, and policies were adapted relatively quickly by many companies that initially struggled and still, to a degree, struggle with employee case numbers. Adaptations in the work environments helped but did not entirely eliminate new cases, since an unknown percentage of cases probably originated outside the work environment. The paucity of traceback data makes discerning case sources (work versus nonwork) very difficult. A variety of factors affected caseloads, including demographics. Multigenerational housing and shared transportation, for example, were outside the control of employers. On the other hand, shared workspaces outside the food processing areas, such as shared break rooms and locker rooms, were associated with higher case numbers.
A Hierarchy of Controls
Protection of employees in agribusiness is not that much different from protection of employees in other critical infrastructures. That said, the nuances of protection are different because agribusiness must compensate for the heavy reliance on human capital and the very physical nature of the work, such as occurs in food animal processing. As agribusiness planners envision the scenarios that could play out over coming months, it is prudent to think in terms of the “Multi-Layered Air Defense Model,” which is designed to protect “shared air” in enclosed spaces or spaces with limited air exchanges per hour.
The strategy relies on a “hierarchy of controls.” Think of this strategy as an upside-down pyramid. The lowest layer is the point of the pyramid, which utilizes personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect workers from hazards, in this case, SARS-CoV-2. PPE is important but is the least effective element of protection since the masks most readily available to the public do not completely prevent passage of the virus. This doesn’t mean masks shouldn’t be worn; they should. What it means is that for the strategy to work, the other levels of protection described in the hierarchy must also be incorporated into the protection strategy.
The second level of hierarchical protection is administrative controls, which change the way people work. Administrative controls include strategies such as staggering employee shifts, allowing some employees to work remotely, controlling access and egress points, or spacing people more widely so they can maintain six-foot distancing. Many companies rapidly pivoted and implemented many administrative controls. It should be noted, however, that controls should not be considered static but should be regularly reviewed and modified, as local conditions and case numbers change. Given the dynamic nature of the pandemic, administrative controls should be reviewed monthly at a minimum and compared with COVID case numbers to determine whether any changes are needed.
The third level of hierarchical protection is engineering controls. This is where real progress can be made since these solutions most effectively isolate people from the virus. An example would be increasing complete air exchanges to three per hour, which can reduce the virus burden in the air up to 95 percent. If someone is sick with COVID-19, they shed virus in the air that they exhale. The virus lingers in the air for a time, dependent upon a number of factors. Someone uninfected with the virus can walk through the virus wake and become infected by breathing in the virus floating in the air. Increasing air exchanges means that the overall viral burden in the air is drastically reduced.
Accomplishing this air-exchange rate is not without cost, however. Existing air-handling systems may or may not be able to handle this new burden, often depending on the system’s efficiency. Older systems often struggle with the newly required air-exchange requirements. Newer, more efficient systems may accomplish the goal but increase energy costs. Return on investment must be considered, but when large numbers of employees are present, replacing older systems or modifying newer ones may well pay off.
The next level of hierarchical control is called substitution, seeking to replace the hazard. This level relies on engineering controls. For example, air-handling systems remove the hazard by isolating the virus. Once the virus is removed, the virus-contaminated air is replaced by fresh air that dilutes any remaining viruses. In a hypothetical setting of 10 m³ of shared air, imagine there were 1,000 SARS-CoV-2 particles before the air was replaced.
Increasing air exchanges removed 990 of these virus particles from the air and only 10 particles remain. Pushing more fresh air disperses these even more, lowering the probability that an employee will breathe the virus in.
Introduce additional engineering controls, and the situation can be made better still. Filtration or virus-scavenging/neutralization technologies could be added, which, when combined with air exchanges, lower the viral burden in the air even more. Lower viral burden in turn translates into fewer COVID case numbers, increasing the number of employees able to continue to work.
The last level of hierarchical control is elimination, or physically removing the virus. Although the most effective control, this is the hardest level to achieve because it is so dependent upon all the other controls being done right. Half solutions impede elimination, but one must consider balancing the cost with the level of risk one is willing to absorb. Total elimination of the virus from humans is highly unlikely, even in the best of estimates. Claims that it can be done are mistaken, but more importantly, misleading. For the time being and for the foreseeable future, elimination of the virus is not possible. Things can be made appreciably better by implementing these control levels. The cost/benefit ratio certainly must be considered since neither agribusiness nor the government has an unending supply of money. There will be no easy or cost-free solutions, however.
Even so, solutions will have to be found to ensure corporate survival. Our national economy, the strength of our food supply system, and public health are not made better if companies go bankrupt. A realistic assessment must include looking at all business options and potential case number scenarios. One business option that cannot be ignored is the potential of further automation. Each company will have to consider its own business model, given that COVID-19 or the next pandemic will remain a human problem, further automation of facilities and processes must be seriously considered.
Much of government and business is depending on the availability of efficacious and widely available SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. Current indications are that vaccines will be available in limited quantities in early 2021 and then more widely available by midquarter 2021. It should, however, be cautioned that vaccines are not and never have been panaceas. Vaccines alone cannot solve agribusiness’s labor problems. Vaccines can certainly help, but the lessons learned by agribusiness and government during COVID-19 should not be lost. Unfortunately, many probably will forget these lessons learned.
Shuttering large portions of the economy in the hope of delaying the inevitable is one strategy, but the cure often was worse than the disease itself. Many bad decisions were made by government at all levels, but there were also good decisions. Some very good. COVID-19 is a very serious disease, but like all diseases, the risk for individuals depends on numerous factors. Nevertheless, the loss of human life was a tragedy that must not be ignored. Anyone who discounts this is not looking at the problem through the lens of reality.
On the other hand, those who say perfect protection was or is achievable are equally unrealistic. Life is fraught with risk. In terms of COVID-19, “perfect” is very much the enemy of “good.” This leaves us with only one option. We must learn to manage the problem, rather than be controlled by it. Agribusiness must remain open and functioning. All levels of the food chain and all the outlets for food must remain open and available to the global public.
The truth is that COVID-19 brought to light not only a symptom but also an opportunity. The symptom? Hubris. We assumed that everything was under control, or at least the planners did. The plans had been made; the preparation was in hand. That was shown wrong in both government and business. Everyone stumbled in the early days because everything changed when the realities changed. As a nation, we discovered vulnerabilities of which we were unaware. Then something remarkable started happening, and this is where the opportunity becomes apparent. Smart people started finding solutions to local problems. Once again, we discovered, all problems are local, and the local level was where we had to start fighting back. This is where the solutions will also be found in the future.
The government cannot ensure agribusiness’s resiliency. Agribusiness must find that itself. Government is also not capable of finding suitable solutions. That too lies within business because solutions must be appropriate to the agribusiness segments. Government can certainly help, but the genius and the knowledge lie within agribusiness. The good news is that local solutions have and are being discovered every day. We are a long way from being able to move forward once again full throttle, but we as a nation and a business are hungering and therefore finding solutions.
The fighting spirit is coming back from the early days of confusion and despair. Every day we find a solution, we are becoming more agile and resilient. These alone are outstanding outcomes to the current challenges and will certainly help us as we face the challenges that will surely come our way in the future.
Robert Norton, Ph.D., is a professor and microbiologist at Auburn University and chair of the Auburn University Food Systems Institute’s Food and Water Safety Working Group.
Emefa Monu, Ph.D., is a food scientist with the Food Safety Science Unit of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs in Canada. In her position, she provides scientific evidence and advice for decision making related to food safety in the agrifood industry of the province of Ontario.