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How Food Companies Are Ensuring Food Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Overhead view of a man checking a large selection of apples on a factory conveyor belt.

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent survey found that some food companies are unprepared to ensure food safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.  
  • Food safety issues can emerge due to multiple reasons but often stem from a company’s food safety culture. 
  • The chance of getting COVID-19 through food is low. Consumers can also take precautions, such as washing produce.

The results of a multi-country survey have revealed that some food companies are struggling to ensure food safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, which is set to be published in the journal Food Control in April, has sparked concerns about the risk of COVID-19 transmission through food.

According to the study, 65% of the 825 companies surveyed had a certified food safety plan to implement COVID-19 prevention measures. However, 22% of the companies had only basic safety plans in place, and 12% had no plan at all. 

“The pandemic heightened emphasis on food safety, sometimes even as a result of negative press, such as notable examples in the meatpacking industry." Deane Falcone, chief scientific officer at Crop One, a company in the vertical farming space that grows produce using hydroponic technology, tells Verywell. "My expectation is that food companies are more aware of food safety and the practices that all individuals should adhere to."

What This Means For You

COVID-19 is spread mainly through respiratory transmission, but it is possible to get infected if you touch contaminated food or a food surface, then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, many players in the food industry—from farms to grocery stores—have become increasingly concerned about food safety. While not all companies have plans in place, you can wash your own produce and products.

The Study

From the beginning of the pandemic, organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have released recommendations for reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission from food companies to consumers.

Neil Coole

The common factor in every food safety incident, risk, or recall is people.

— Neil Coole

These recommendations include:

  • Frequent hand-washing, cleaning, and sanitization of objects 
  • Promoting staff awareness of COVID-19 symptoms and advising workers who are ill to stay at home
  • Physical distancing in the workplace
  • Using personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks and gloves

The results of the survey indicated that smaller companies have found it harder to implement the WHO's recommendations because they have less staff and limited financial resources compared to larger companies.

The medium to large-sized companies could afford more PPE and implement more rigorous hygiene practices. Nevertheless, the study's researchers say that none of the companies surveyed reported food safety problems—such as a disease outbreak—amid the pandemic.

Falcone says that COVID-19 has impacted how the food industry views airborne infectious illnesses, such as COVID-19. “In our indoor farming operation, all personnel involved in direct produce handling, of course, wear protective face masks," he says, adding this his company, Crop One, will continue to require mask-wearing even after the pandemic. 

Barriers to Food Safety 

Overall, the study’s findings highlight that food companies not only face obstacles dealing with COVID-19, but with food safety in general. Furthermore, problems can crop up at different points in the process.

The food you eat undergoes several steps before it reaches your table.

  • Production: The growing of plants and raising of animals  
  • Processing: The changing of plants and animals into food products
  • Distribution: The storage and transportation of food products
  • Preparation: Getting the food ready to eat (in a restaurant, home, or other location)

At any step in the process, food can get contaminated with harmful germs, such as E. coli and Salmonella. Therefore, companies need to have a food safety plan that can help them prevent food contamination and address emergencies (such as a pandemic) if necessary. 

“The food industry is one of the most regulated industries globally; however, food safety issues continue to occur like clockwork around the world year after year,” Neil Coole, the director of food and retail supply chain at BSI, tells Verywell.

Coole says that companies encounter food safety issues, such as disease outbreaks, for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Lack of funding or support for upgraded equipment or staff training programs  
  • Lack of effective root cause analysis of product quality issues and incidents
  • Failure to identify the current accepted norms and behaviors in the food industry 

How Food Companies Can Improve

Any company, regardless of size, can work on improving food safety—even amid a pandemic. "We need to understand that the common factor in every food safety incident, risk, or recall is people," Coole says, adding that improvement in the food industry begins with adopting a culture of food safety. 

“By understanding and embracing this, from senior leadership and throughout the organization to frontline operators, organizations can start their journey to a positive and effective culture of food safety by understanding their maturity level, measuring what their people think, say, and believe on the topic of food safety," Coole says. 

COVID-19 Food Transmission Risk Is Low 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the risk of getting COVID-19 from food is very low.

Falcone agrees but adds a caveat. “Certainly, washing fruits and vegetables would be beneficial, but more from the removal of other potential microbes such as E. coli on such produce than from possible COVID-19 contamination.” 

Produce grown outdoors is more likely to get contaminated by contaminated irrigation water. For this reason, Falcone recommends that individuals wash outdoor-grown produce thoroughly before eating. 

"In controlled environment indoor growing, as used by our company, plants are grown in sealed, clean environments and the water used to grow them is municipal tap water that is highly purified by an on-site water purification system," Falcone says. He adds that you do not need to wash produce after it's already gone through stringent hygienic practices in a controlled, indoor environment. 

Food safety has always been a top concern for the food industry, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought more attention to food safety management.

Experts say that the risk of getting COVID-19 through food is low. Still, it might give you some peace of mind to know that many food companies are doing their best to ensure that you're protected from COVID-19—and other potentially harmful germs as well.

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Article Sources
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  1. Djekica I, Nikolićb A, Uzunovićb M, Marijkec A, Liud A, Hand J, et al. Covid-19 pandemic effects on food safety - multi-country survey study. Food Control. 2020;122:107800. doi:10.1016/j.foodcont.2020.107800

  2. World Health Organization (WHO). COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses. Updated April 7, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How food gets contaminated - the food production chain. Updated September 5, 2017.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Food and coronavirus disease 2019. Updated December 1, 2020.