WASHINGTON — Senior officials of the Food and Drug Administration on March 18 brought food industry executives and other stakeholders up to date on steps the agency has taken to ensure the safety of the food supply during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Officials taking part in the conference call included Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner, Office of Food Policy and Response; Michael Rogers, assistant commissioner for human and animal food operations, Office of Regulatory Affairs; and Susan Mayne, PhD, director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
“Food production and food manufacturing are widely dispersed through the United States, and there are currently no widespread disruptions reported in the food chain,” Mr. Yiannas said. “We, and when I say we, I mean all of us, must continue to reassure and remind the American people that there’s no need to hoard food, that they should only buy what they need for their family for a week or so.”
Mr. Yiannas emphasized because there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19, “we do not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or withdrawn from market should a person that works in a food facility be confirmed for COVID-19.”
Mr. Yiannas said the steps taken to help reduce the risk of infection for FDA inspectors should not interrupt the process by which safe foods reach the market.
Mr. Rogers oversees the FDA’s inspections, investigations and sample collections at domestic and foreign human and animal food manufacturers and firms.
He said FDA on March 10 announced it was postponing most foreign facility inspections through April and that inspections outside the United States deemed critical will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
He said the FDA’s domestic inspections and resources during the pandemic would be directed to mission critical and for-cause inspections (the latter in response to a recall, for instance). For the time being, the FDA will postpone its routine surveillance inspections that the agency had planned to conduct this fiscal year.
“Our approach will always put the public health mission of the agency first, and it’s focused on ensuring that the food supply is safe,” Mr. Rogers said. “It also takes into account the safety of our workforce, their families and the industry’s workforce.”
Mr. Rogers elaborated, “Related to domestic inspections, our approach to postpone our domestic routine surveillance inspections will take into account the operational status of the firm and in many cases must reflect any geographic restrictions that the states are adopting — for instance, some of the decisions related to shelter in place.”
The FDA will conduct mission critical inspections, for instance, of facilities that manufacture foods considered at high risk of contamination, where and when they are needed if there is any possible way to get there and accomplish them in a way that does not put anyone at risk, Mr. Rogers said.
The FDA is evaluating ways to accomplish such inspections without its traditional level of on-site presence.
“We also plan to engage with industry on the best way to do that,” Mr. Rogers said.
In the past, most FDA food facility inspections have been unannounced, he added.
“We’ve decided to modify that procedure, and for the foreseeable future, we will be pre-announcing the majority of inspections that we will be conducting in the domestic arena,” he said. “In some rare occasions, we may need to conduct an unannounced inspection, but quite frankly, right now, I can’t think of many scenarios that would warrant that approach at this time.”
Dr. Mayne emphasized the importance of food facilities adhering to their required food safety plans.
“As a next precaution, to help avoid the transmission of this virus through surface contact, we recommend frequent washing and sanitizing of all food contact surfaces and utensils,” she said.
Dr. Mayne said if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to this virus in the workplace but maintain confidentiality. Employees exposed to a coworker with confirmed COVID-19 should follow CDC’s guidance as explained on its website.
In a brief question-and-answer period, one food manufacturer asked that if one of its employees becomes sick with COVID-19, whether it would become necessary to put a hold on products until it’s certain they’re safe.
Dr. Mayne responded, “You want to prevent spreading within the plant, obviously, so the primary goal is to prevent the spread person to person, but we are not asking that food be placed on hold or the food be recalled or anything like that.”