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The COVID-19 Pandemic and Maintenance of a Continued Safe Food Supply

April 17, 2020

The Alliance met (virtually) on April 15 with Dr. Caitlin Boon, FDA Associate Commissioner for Food Policy and Response and several of her colleagues. She described CFSAN’s and CVM’s role in responding to the current pandemic, as well as how the agency is assuring a continued safe food supply.

About 50% of food spending in the U.S. occurs away from home. With sheltering at home and the temporary closure of restaurants, cafeterias, and schools, all of that demand has been re-directed to grocery stores and other retail food outlets. The consequences for both the food supply and food safety are significant. These include disruption in the supply chain and packaging and labeling requirements that differ substantially between retail and wholesale settings. FDA has issued a number of guidances addressing these challenges.

FDA has an important role to play in educating consumers and industry about COVID-19 and the food supply. Dr. Boon mentioned some of the important messages that FDA is delivering:

  • COVID-19 cannot be carried on food or food packaging.
  • There is not a lack of capacity in the food supply, although there are some localized food shortages and some lag-time for some products that are transitioning to retail sales.
  • Hoarding is unnecessary and needlessly disrupts the food supply.

She recommended FDA’s FAQ for those interested in more on COVID-19 and the food supply (here).

Under FSMA, facilities are required to have food safety plans to protect workers who may become ill. FDA released an infographic on food safety best practices for retailers (here) that is being widely distributed. FDA is also working to ensure that food and agriculture workers receive personal protective equipment.

In all these activities, FDA is working closely with other federal and state public health agencies, food industry stakeholders, and consumers. Also, as part of coronavirus phase one funding, the FDA received $2 million to work on current and future food virology issues.

Dr. Boon stressed that FDA is still fully committed to its other ongoing food safety activities. This has involved some adjustments because the agency will not be able to perform routine surveillance inspections due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. However, the agency will respond to public health emergencies. Also, FSMA requirements and other programs allow monitoring and intervention in high-risk situations even in the absence of inspections. The agency continues its monitoring and enforcement with regard to fraudulent claims for foods and dietary supplements, particularly around COVID​-19.

Critical to FDA’s ongoing food safety activities is the agency’s commitment to implementing the “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” plan (here). Among other things, the report looks to a future with technology-enabled tracing, smarter prevention strategies, more food being bought through e-commerce, innovations in food delivery, and public health infrastructure that better supports food safety. Dr. Boon pointed to some ways that responding to the pandemic has advanced the plan, such as the dramatic shift toward e-commerce and food delivery.

Editorial Note: The Analysis and Commentary section is written by Steven Grossman, Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA. He thanks Alliance staffer Reed Diskey for his assistance with this week’s column.

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