Experts: Continuity of food system critical during COVID-19 pandemic

To maintain a stable food supply during the battle against the novel coronavirus, farms, packing houses, food processors and manufacturers, distributors, and retailers must take measures to ensure that they can continue to operate, according to food scientists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. Credit: John Lambeth via PexelsAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Maintaining a stable food supply in the United States is critical in the battle against the novel coronavirus. And that means each sector of the food supply chain — farms, packing houses, food processors and manufacturers, distributors and retailers — must take measures to ensure that they can continue to operate, according to food scientists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Food is not recognized as a source of the virus, but keeping food safe from other pathogens and keeping workers healthy and productive are always important considerations, noted Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate.

"Consumers' greatest concern may be from stores where there are large crowds and greater risk of coming into contact with someone who is sick," he said. "Surfaces such as grocery carts potentially can carry virus, so handwashing is important."

For food operations, one of the keys to avoiding illness is employee training, Bucknavage said.

"Employees, whether they work on the farm or in the factory, must monitor themselves for illness. If they have any symptoms including fever, sore throat or dry cough, they should stay home. Social distancing must be encouraged including avoiding large gatherings or other risks for exposure during off hours. Handwashing, as always, is a key for food employees," he explained.

Bucknavage advised that each operation should establish policies to promote social distancing where possible, monitor for sick employees, and use enhanced cleaning of all surfaces that employees or customers frequently touch.

Essential agricultural businesses

Bucknavage cited Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture guidelines for essential food and feed businesses to help ensure a safe and accessible food supply during COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Among essential agricultural businesses are farms, greenhouses and orchards; food processors and manufacturers; animal feed and supply distribution networks; distribution and transportation systems from farm to retail and from processors and manufacturers to retailers; retailers such as grocery stores and farmers markets; grocery delivery services; and laboratories and inspectors that ensure food safety.

All essential businesses that choose to remain open should review and adjust standard operating procedures to minimize risk, take measures to protect their employees, send home sick employees, and minimize or eliminate congregate settings or groups of more than 10 people whenever possible.

Farms and on-farm deliveries

State agriculture officials also offer guidance and recommendations for farms to limit exposure and risk related to COVID-19, pointed out Luke LaBorde, professor of food science.

"These include considering ways to limit person-to-person contact and to congregate in settings of no more than 10 people while maintaining social distance," LaBorde said. "Other recommendations suggest identifying a drop-off location for regular deliveries away from on-farm high-traffic areas and housing, logging all deliveries and on-farm entries, preparing the on-farm workforce, following strict sanitation protocols, and developing continuity-of-business, or COB, plans to keep operations running smoothly."

Farmers markets and on-farm markets

Farmers markets and on-farm markets are encouraged to follow the COVID-19 guidance for farm and distribution preparedness, according to Catherine Cutter, professor of food science and food safety extension specialist.

"Recommendations have been issued to limit customer contact with foods, to consider drive-through or pick-up sales options, and to separate stands to limit crowd size," she said. "We advise that vendors also provide guidance to workers on handwashing and maintaining social distance and to properly sanitize food contact surfaces."

The three food scientists said that Penn State Extension educators and faculty specialists can be a source of information and expertise for farm and food businesses during the COVID-19 emergency.

Other guidance from state and federal agencies regarding novel coronavirus includes the following:

— General information for food and agricultural businesses on COVID-19 from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

— For food products and food facilities — such as grocery stores, manufacturing facilities, restaurants, and others — general guidance on handling food, transmission of illness, and cleaning and sanitization procedures.

— Specific guidance for the dairy industry.

— Detailed guidance for the food industry from the Food and Drug Administration.

— Information on COVID-19 in Pennsylvania from the state Department of Health.

"We don't know how long coronavirus will be a risk, but throughout this time, it is important to ensure an ample supply of food to promote health and proper nutrition," Bucknavage said. "Maintaining a robust food system is critical in this effort."

Last Updated March 19, 2020