The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a wealth of “teachable moments” to food manufacturers. From the initial spread of the Coronavirus in the spring of 2020 to the start of this third year of COVID-19, most levels of a food company’s operations have been affected, from the availability of supplies and workforce health to food safety inspections and a reliable distribution network.

This blog from ImEPIK will examine the emergence of pandemic food safety and will detail the practices that shouldn’t be tossed when the pandemic is officially over.

Be flexible when possible

Regulations dictate many decisions made by food manufacturers, particularly those concerning food safety, so changing policies to fit day-to-day needs isn’t an option in many cases.

However, throughout the pandemic, there have been many reports of companies making the best of the situation, altering practices to meet the market’s needs.

That includes packaging concerns, such as apple shippers shifting to bags to meet consumer preferences and companies across the globe reshaping their supply chains.

Touching base: communication is key

Poor messaging can amplify confusion and compound late or non-existent communication between stakeholders, regulators, and local and federal agencies during any crisis.

The early days of the pandemic stressed the need for local and federal health authorities to work with food manufacturers on maintaining a healthy workforce. After determining who was an essential worker, how to keep them healthy became paramount.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other agencies rolled out a series of FAQs focused on workplace practices (and company responsibilities) to promote worker safety.

While that messaging didn’t stop the virus from spreading — most notably in the meat processing industry — food companies tailored pandemic food safety programs to their specific facilities. Measures implemented included temperature check stations designed to keep sick employees from entering the plant to setting up distancing policies on the production line.

At the same time, federal agencies directed food manufacturers, retailers, and foodservice operators to consult with local, regional, and/or state health authorities to determine how to respond when workers fell ill at the local level.

Keep the COVID-19 response plan handy

Document your company’s response to the pandemic before it becomes a memory.

Ask yourself:

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t work?
  • Where is the best source for personal protective equipment, and how much should the company keep on hand?
  • What was the optimal number of employees per shift in a particular department while keeping them at a safe distance from each other?
  • How were meal breaks scheduled throughout the plant?

Keep copies of training materials used to educate personnel, from managers to line employees, and update your pandemic food safety materials as needed to apply to future crises.

Prepare for hybrid audits and make use of technology

As travel restrictions and concerns over FDA employee safety ended in-person inspections of foreign food facilities in the Spring of 2020, the agency focused on “mission-critical” activities. The FDA added a variety of surveillance tools and oversight approaches, including remote inspections of food importers under the Foreign Supplier Verification Program, and it’s likely some off-site programs will continue past the pandemic.

In June 2021, the FDA released a fact sheet on “Remote Regulatory Assessments of Human Food Facilities,” which details success in allowing the FDA remote access to a company’s food safety records. According to the document, the process benefits the industry and FDA “by helping to reduce on-site inspection time, to keep FDA and facility personnel safer during the COVID-19 pandemic, and, in the future, to more efficiently use on-site inspection time.”

Necessity is the mother of inventory policies

Companies were surprised as the pandemic’s consequences dried up ingredient supply chains, an issue that is recurring in many areas with pinch points. A healthy balance must be struck between excessive storage space and a sleek just-in-time replenishment system that enhances a lean business model. Also, other factors that limit the ability to change the system include supplier capabilities, plant infrastructure, the storage life of ingredients, and unfavorably high markets for raw ingredients.

ImEPIK’s food safety training ensures PCQI compliance

ImEPIK’s comprehensive online training course helps food manufacturers fulfill FSMA’s Preventive Controls Qualified Individual mandate. The multi-module program includes the FDA’s curriculum and uses real production scenarios to teach critical food safety concepts.

Contact ImEPIK to learn more about the program, including team pricing available for companies that enroll multiple team members.