Produce Food Safety & COVID-19
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
By Sarah Everhart
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We all need some good news these days, right? So let’s start with the good news. The good news is that according to FDA, there is currently no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. The virus is spread through respiratory droplets or by touching an object with the virus on it and then subsequently touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Produce growers need to take precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, however, unlike other food safety risks that may be spread through various routes on a farm (water, improperly treated biological soil amendments, wild/domesticated animals, etc.) the route of contamination for COVID-19 is limited to humans (workers, customers, or visitors to the farm). This post will provide a brief overview of some of the ways farm operators can reduce the spread of COVID-19, for more information check out this FDA webpage. Additionally, check out these State of Maryland resources for specific information related to reducing risks at farmers’ markets and pick-your-own operations.
The same advice that the general public has been getting about preventing the spread of COVID-19, namely, “Wash Your Hands!”, is also recommended to also be put into practice on farms. Farm operators need to make sure everyone on the farm is able to wash their hands and knows the importance of properly washing their hands. Operators may need to provide portable handwashing stations to allow for hand washing before and after handling produce. If farmers need signage to inform workers, customers, or visitors, how to wash their hands, they should contact the Maryland Department of Agriculture via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is also more important than ever for farm operators to encourage sick workers to stay home (depending on the nature of the farm, this should also be extended to visitors and customers). To communicate this information to Spanish speaking workers, check out this explanation of COVID-19 in Spanish. The Center for Disease Control has been periodically updating the symptoms associated with COVID-19 so farm operators should try to stay up to date and inform workers exhibiting any of the signs of COVID-19 to stay home. For more information on paid sick leave for farmworkers, check out this past post.
Another COVID-19 preventative measure for farms is to expand the farm’s existing cleaning and sanitizing routines to include, not just food contact areas, but also disinfecting areas that are often touched such as doorknobs, tools, equipment, harvest containers, transport vehicles, break areas, and bathrooms. According to FDA, food facilities should use EPA-registered “sanitizer” products in their cleaning and sanitizing practices, however, prior to use, operators should check the product label guidelines and make sure the products are safe and recommended for use in food manufacturing areas or food establishments.
If a farm employee tests positive for COVID-19, as an employer, you should inform your other employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, however, you must maintain the confidentiality of the infected worker. This CDC guidance outlines how to handle agricultural workers who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19 but are not showing any signs of illness.
It seems appropriate to also end this post with some good news. Because there is currently no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging, the FDA, does not anticipate food products will need to be recalled or be withdrawn from the market because of COVID-19. For more information on how to reduce risks related to COVID-19 on the farm, check out the information on the University of Maryland, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, Food Safety page and subscribe to the Department’s food safety newsletter.
Although not directly related to COVID-19, later this month, the Maryland Food Safety Network will kick off a monthly webinar series for farm operators on how to improve their farm’s food safety and comply with key provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule (PSR). The webinars will be held one Friday each month from May to November and will include experts demonstrating how to perform risk assessments, implement practices, and keep records to comply with the PSR. This webinar series is recommended for operators who have attended a Produce Safety Rule Grower Training and want more information on how to apply what they learned and what records they need to keep to be in compliance with the PSR.
The first webinar on May 22, 2020, at noon will cover worker health and hygiene training. The Food Safety Network is excited to be kicking off the webinar series with worker training, as the Maryland Department of Agriculture has highlighted this area as needing improvement for better compliance with the PSR. Register for the webinars today. If you are unable to participate in the webinars live, all of the webinars will be recorded and available to watch on a rainy day on the food safety page of the ALEI website and the University of Maryland Extension’s food safety webpage.