Researchers surveyed small to large food companies in 16 countries on food safety attributes and emergency plans. They found that less than half the food companies had documented putting emergency plans in place for pandemics and public health crises.
One of the challenges posed by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pathogen, is the ability to obtain safe and sufficient food. Apart from the severe health and economic impacts of the pandemic, the food sector also has been impacted, and has been determining ways of ensuring food security.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed documents that provide guidance on supporting the food supply chain, addressing the needs of food companies and for national food safety systems. According to the European Food Safety Authority, there is a low risk of transmission of the coronavirus from food, as the virus does not survive for long on food packaging.
Although there is some evidence suggesting the virus can be transmitted by contaminated meat or from food contact surfaces, human to human contact remains the primary transmission mode. However, this has an indirect effect on the food business.
Food safety management systems (FSMS) have been evolving in the last two decades, ensuring good hygiene practices and maintaining robust hazard analysis systems. Food legislation generally specifies that food companies are responsible for hazard analysis and critical control point systems, and governmental inspection is responsible for evaluating how effective they are.
Surveying food companies response to COVID-19
In a new study, published in the journal Food Control, a team of international researchers report on a survey assessing the response of food companies to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The team surveyed 825 food companies involved in food production, processing, storage/distribution, retail and wholesale of food in 16 countries between May and August 2020. They developed a questionnaire to analyze how the pandemic has affected food safety in the companies. Different sections in the questionnaire reflected the companies’ food safety methods, how they have tried to mitigate the pandemic's impact, how they identify food safety systems in the food supply chain affected by COVID-19, and their emergency preparedness plans. The data obtained were analyzed, classified into clusters, and scores were then generated.
Less than half of the companies surveyed were small, with less than 50 employees. About half the companies were involved in foods of animal origin, 30% operating in foods of plant origin, and the rest were food service companies.
The survey results indicated that the companies strongly agreed that they have implemented more stringent hygiene procedures during the pandemic, including purchasing more personal protective equipment for staff.
Cluster analysis revealed three clusters based on the level of FSMS in place. About 40% of the companies, mainly small in size, had only basic systems in place. About 54% of companies had no FSMS in place. Medium-sized and big companies, about 39%, had certified systems in place.
Using a best-worst methodology, the authors identified the most critical COVID-19 attributes that the companies considered. The most important attributed turned out to be “staff awareness” followed by “hygiene of the object,” both emphasized by WHO as top priorities.
“Temperature checking of workers” and “health protocols from WHO/government” attributes ranked low in importance. This is likely because of increased staff awareness during the pandemic, with sick workers not coming into work.
Although the pandemic has raised the importance of using personal protective equipment, the survey results indicated “use of mask and gloves” had no importance, probably because of the use of these even before the pandemic. In the food supply chain, food safety systems in the retail section were the most affected while storage was the least affected.
The top emergency preparedness plans the companies had been for water contamination, contamination of ingredients or packaging, and response to pandemic and health issues. Analysis of the survey data indicated that emergency plans could be separated into emergencies associated with food and/or the environment and emergencies associated with disruptions that were not man-made or preventable.
Big and small companies were contrasting in their emergency preparedness practices. Smaller companies with less human, financial, and technical resources found it difficult to implement food safety requirements compared to medium- and large-sized companies.
Thus, companies with FSMS in place already implemented stricter measures to combat virus transmission in their operations. However, the study's limitation was it is based only on the companies’ perceptions of their management systems for food safety during the pandemic and is not supplemented with on-site independent assessments. Thus, efforts in future should look at the effect of COVID-19 on food fraud and food security.