By Melanie Arthur, NFU Intern
The Covid-19 pandemic has created new challenges for our food system, especially for those operating or working on farms or in food facilities. To simplify and streamline pandemic-related decisions, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a new resource, the Employee Health and Food Safety Checklist for Human and Animal Food Operations During the Covid-19 Pandemic. This checklist provides critical questions to keep in mind when operating a food facility or farm during the pandemic.
As FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas shares in his book, Food Safety = Behavior, a checklist should not be used to replace best practices like “clear performance expectations, training and education of employees, effective design of work-process, or proper equipment or tools.” Instead, it should build off of these practices and provides a fresh, clear perspective for facing some of the challenges presented by Covid-19.
This resource may be relevant to anyone who is growing, harvesting, packing, manufacturing, or processing food. While this is a broad scope of operations, the checklist questions are specific in their guidance to farmers – no matter your operation’s size or type – and emphasize some important considerations regarding employee health and food safety.
While there is no evidence to suggest that Covid-19 is transmitted through food or food packaging, spaces in a farm or processing operation where workers are in close contact with one another can create substantial risk of worker exposure. To reduce those risks, the checklist focuses on safety practices relating to workers, sanitation, facilities, and water and plumbing. If these are concerns for your operation, two key sections to pay attention to are Employee Health and Work Space Configuration.
The health of employees is central to the stability of a farm operation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends developing a Covid-19 control plan that includes steps for assessing employee health, re-starting an operation after a shutdown, using face masks and other PPE, analyzing your sick leave policies, and assessing shared transportation or housing for workers. The checklist does not provide answers directly for each of the subjects; rather, it brings attention to each health aspect that requires assessment and directs you to informational resources that will aid in your evaluation. Many good farm food safety practices, such as hand washing, cleaning, and sanitizing, are recognized in the checklist, which underscores the importance of having a food safety plan to fit the needs of your individual operation.
Additionally, the checklist provides examples of “good” and “not protective” work space configurations for both workstations and field work. Whether you are implementing social distancing at workstations, physical partitions on processing lines, or distanced arrangements of workers while harvesting, some degree of separation of workers, wherever possible, can prevent or minimize the spread of Covid-19.
Although this checklist is extensive, it is not exhaustive; consulting local authorities and resources can provide you with additional expertise. Links within the checklist direct you to supplementary resources, including information and posters for employees in multiple languages and specific guidance for individuals sectors like seafood processing and meat and poultry processing.
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