The Food Industries Role in Tackling the Coronavirus State of Emergency

By Simon Creasey

Over the last 12 months the world has been consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic. We have all seen the tragic consequences of the virus first hand and we now know much more about the virus than we did last January when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. But while our knowledge of the virus and how it spreads has increased exponentially so too has mis-information about it - largely disseminated via social media channels.

The food industry has not been immune from unsubstantiated and misleading reports. Some ‘experts’ claim the virus can be transmitted on the surface of food packaging, but while research suggests the virus can indeed survive on surfaces like cans and bottles, the UK government says “there should be no need to sanitize the outer packaging of food” thanks to the safety measures put in place by food businesses. To date, there is no concrete evidence that anyone has caught the virus from food packaging.

Suggestions have also been made that the virus can survive at very low temperatures and can even be transmitted on frozen meat. While Chinese health authorities did indeed discover live coronavirus on frozen food packaging late last year, no firm evidence has been presented to suggest that anyone caught the virus from the pack.

Wake-up call for the food industry

Despite the lack of substantiating material the food processing sector has repeatedly been thrust into the spotlight and forced to examine how it operates since the pandemic commenced. In an S&P Global Ratings report issued in October last year, the company described Covid-19 as a ‘wake-up call for the food processing industry’. In the report it states the pandemic’s impact will “permanently change how companies approach workforce safety, particularly at meat facilities, where coronavirus infection rates have been high”.

While there may be numerous spurious rumors doing the rounds surrounding Covid-19 and the food industry, it is true that there have been a number of outbreaks of the virus amongst employees at meat processing plants around the world, which caused significant disruption to supply chains.

However, this is due to a number of different factors. Firstly, while some animal carcasses can be butchered using machinery others require human butchering skills, which sees people typically working elbow to elbow on production lines. In these noisy production environments employees often have to shout to communicate with fellow workers, thus there is a higher risk of workers spreading the virus.

Introduction of future-proof measures to mitigate risks

To minimize the risk of further outbreaks meat processing plants rapidly implemented social distancing, regular health screening and other safety measures like the wearing of PPE by all employees.

However, in the future it’s anticipated that hygiene standards will need to be further increased and some processors are already implementing or exploring the use of new ventilation systems that can minimize the potential spread of airborne diseases like coronavirus.

A second key change that we are likely to see over the next few years at many food companies is the introduction of greater levels of automation on production lines. But this will take time and is not without its challenges. Automation equipment is costly, the lead time on orders can be several months and in some older factories space constraints may limit the ability to introduce modern equipment.

New safety standards to meet future challenges

The measures outlined above should help to minimize further viral outbreaks in the food industry, but more action is clearly needed. In the aftermath of the pandemic it’s anticipated that consumers, regulators and government agencies will seek even greater assurance around food safety, which means food companies may need to adopt new safety standards and working processes to safeguard workers and their products.

It’s also likely that people will be more interested than ever about how their food has been farmed and processed. As a result, it’s important that food companies grasp the initiative, act with complete transparency and work with all parties that have a vested interest to inform any regulatory changes relating to food safety rather than have unworkable systems imposed on them.

Thanks to global vaccination programs the threat posed by Covid-19 will hopefully start to recede over the coming months, but health experts believe it’s only a matter of time before another potentially more dangerous pathogen comes along.

By acting responsibly now and putting the appropriate safety processes and protocols in place, the food industry can be ahead of many of the issues it has encountered during the Covid-19 pandemic off at the pass and avoid significant production disruption in the future.

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalism who regularly writes about the food and drink industry for a wide range of different publications. He was formerly features editor at industry leading The Grocer magazine.