During the COVID-19 pandemic, the words safety and security have never seemed more important. For Jeff Mitchell, safety and security have always been top priorities, along with one other "s" word: science. As IFCO’s Director of Global Food Safety, Mitchell discusses current events in the global food markets: how his work has changed, what the industry has learned and what may be needed going forward.
Mitchell: We had to educate ourselves about the novel coronavirus and learn how it spread, to develop best methods for prevention. This required the industry to work in collaboration through platforms established to share best practices and learnings. As a result, we needed to be agile and make appropriate adjustments to our processes, and that’s our industry as a whole.
We now look at food safety as including employee’s health and the risks associated with workers who are sick, regardless of the type pathogen. This highlights the importance of effective cleaning and sanitizing programs for the industry.
Mitchell: Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease, there’s been a lot of confusing messages regarding the spread of COVD-19. Everyone needs to check the source of information and the context of the information. For example, as we learned more about the virus it was evident that the food supply was safe, currently there’s no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. I would caution people when they’re reading research to not only read the abstract — you must read the entire research paper so you can review the data and the applicability of the results.
The public also needs scientific guidance and expert commentary, including critique. In some studies that made their way around the internet, it was mentioned that the virus had viability for up to 3 days on different surfaces. The reason this should be cautioned is the way the research was performed, in a laboratory environment. It wasn’t in a real-world environment. High levels of the virus were also used for their inoculations, and so it really didn’t represent a real-world scenario. What’s important is the half-life of the virus: After a certain period of time, 50% of infective virus has been reduced. It’s basically the decay rate. That is what people should be looking at: In multiple studies the half-life was around 6 to 8 hours. So, I’d say, be careful. We need to take caution when you read these articles and not the research papers.
Mitchell: A major change was the supply chain demand shift because of stay-at-home orders and closures of restaurants. Inventory and supply demands for food service were significantly reduced because of that. The demand at retail grocery stores surged initially and then levelled back off. Most food suppliers already had established food safety programs in place with supportive good manufacturing practices and sanitation programs. What’s changed is the practicing of social distancing at the workplace which incorporates the 6-20-100 rule: You stay 6 feet apart (2 meters), you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, and if you’ve got a temperature of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), you stay home.
Mitchell: Because much of the industry had good foundational programs in place, and we worked in collaboration with each other, we were able to keep the food supply chain moving. It was just remarkable how the industry pulled together to continue the flow. From the growers, packers, the processors, warehousing, transportation, to retailers and their suppliers, everyone was working together in collaboration. Enough cannot be said about the efforts they put forth to make sure there was food put on the table. So I think everybody who’s involved in the food supply chain – they’re heroes as well.
Mitchell: The short answer is a lot. I see the industry moving to a more digital and traceable food system, to be able to maneuver and get food to where it was needed. We’ve also learned how much e-commerce has grown as consumers order an expanding list of products online. We’ve been contemplating the steps to be taken to ensure the safety of these food products, regarding how they’re packaged and transported, and we feel RPCs fit well into this model. The pandemic and consumers sheltering-in-place certainly has increased online shopping and we don’t see that trend reversing completely.
Contact tracing is also an area of focus I can see in the future. Currently, we have tools that are being evaluated, working with proximity sensing technologies that preserve personal privacy. I’m not sure this will be something mandated across the industry, but it’s being looked at by health authorities globally. Smart wristbands are being tested that will alarm when you’re within 6 feet (2 meters) and can record everyone that worker may have come into close contact with and the amount of time they had in that close proximity as an example.
The industry is potentially looking at the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, as being included in the food industry sampling program. Traditionally we look at sanitation as a way to prevent food-borne illness, not so much around employee health or safety at work. But I could see viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 becoming part of the environmental monitoring program to ensure that the sanitation efforts we have in place are effective. More research needs to be done here.
Mitchell:. As a child I took things apart because I wanted to know how they worked, that certainly got me into a lot of trouble, but I’m just wired that way. I started out in college studying to be a chemist, and then joined the military working under the Public Health Command where I was trained on all aspects of food safety and security. I got my Master’s in Food Science and Food Technology and Engineering through the US Department of Defense degree completion program. As part of the military’s degree utilization program I was sent overseas where I audited dairy processing, produce processing, seafood processing, and worked with regulatory authorities/officials, globally. I learned so much.
I started working in the industry and over time became known as an expert in sanitation and pathogen mitigation, and then IFCO came calling. I was totally intrigued with the reusable container program; I had never heard of it, but it was a sustainable solution, and I liked that. When I was interviewed, IFCO said they wanted to get more science involved in the process. So I came. We’ve done a lot of validation and a lot for the industry, and we’re going to continue to do so.