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Unpacking Food Safety in a World of Coronavirus

The widespread prevalence of COVID-19, the illness caused by SARS-CoV-2, among the farm and packing workforce is well documented.

A diversity of preventive measures have been widely adopted, including awareness building and personal hygiene and protection training, distribution of PPE and hand sanitizer, coworker cohort and extended multigenerational contact tracing, housing support during quarantine, “fit for work” screening procedures, and increased facility cleaning and sanitation protocols. An additional option of rapid environmental monitoring programs (EMP-CVD) for the broad class of coronaviruses and specific testing for SARS-CoV-2 has been widely discussed, but limited adoption has resulted.

Although first rolled out to the produce industry in April following experiences in the meat packing industry, I have been reserved in communication surrounding the “Whys and Why Nots” of integrating EMP-CVD into produce industry SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and SSOPs (Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures) for packing facility management of coronavirus.

Recently, the topic has re-emerged as the issues surrounding the high prevalence of COVID-19 infection in the ag-labor sector has received greater attention and deepening concern. At its most basic, and depending on specific design and targets, EMP-CVD test kits screen for the presence of coronavirus in general, and many have a secondary test for SARS-CoV-2 specifically or go directly for SARS-CoV-2 indicators and other human viruses. “Rapid” can be a bit of a misnomer, as time to result (TtR) may be 24 to 96 hours from a swab sample. Some market test kits claim to provide a one-hour TtR, but detection would only likely be experienced in a highly contaminated clinical environment.

Why develop an EMP-CVD program?

The key arguments include:

• All fit-to-work screening methods, from non-contact temperature screening to visual assessments of symptoms, are imperfect. Direct testing of personnel may be available on a broad scale for these essential workers, but these tests have a different complement of accuracy, sensitivity, functionality issues, and potential delays in results — up to two weeks in some regions. The data shows COVID-19 is fairly widespread among ag workers. So suffice it to say, monitoring and understanding the potential for transmission among the workforce to inform management and employees of needed remediation and review of preventive measures — retraining, cleaning, and sanitation — may be worth considering.

• Although the strongest evidence remains that person-to-person transmission is from airborne respiratory droplets, recent information provides some evidence that infection from touching contaminated surfaces, followed by touching mouth, nose, and eyes, must be considered a route. The data surrounding persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in aerosols and on various surfaces is longer than initially characterized.

• An intelligently and strategically designed EMP-CVD program provides a level of assurance and due diligence for the most vulnerable employees working in close proximity, all staff and ownership, inspectors, maintenance and technical services contractors, customers, and consumers.

• Results from Listeria EMPs provide ample evidence of transfer from workers to high-risk touchpoint areas such as railings and door handles, forklift and lift truck steering and controls, time clocks, conveyor and other equipment control panels and door handles, shared data-entry tablets, computer keyboards and mice, break areas, vending machines, dispensing of garment and personal protective equipment, adornment and return areas, and many more.

Why not develop an EMP-CVD program? The previous bullet tends to say it all. There are so many potential sites in any facility, and the cost per test — for the ones from the most reliable manufacturers — are pricey relative to the power of the information coming back. In addition:

• No rapid test differentiates infectious from non-infectious pathogens. Although presence in a facility as an indicator may be useful management information, the consensus is other daily programs must be implemented regardless.

• Growers, packers, and handlers have made a substantial investment in enhanced sanitation, PPE, barriers, shields and separation construction, quarantine housing, additional ag-labor transportation, employee testing, and health care measures to meet CDC, FDA, OSHA, and other federal and state agency recommendations and requirements.

• Packing facilities that have piloted an EMP-CVD had initially discovered multiple worker and traffic convergence hot spots, and the repeat testing was judged to be overly costly relative to other remediation measures, including removal of certain touch-point areas, redirecting traffic flow, restricting access or shift adjustments, and more frequent in-shift disinfection in presumptive high-risk surfaces and areas.

Ultimately, these are individual cost-benefit decisions. Fortunately, there are several excellent resources for companies to access to help evaluate whether to implement an EMP-CVD. A good starting point would be to consult an established technical support services group