Published Reports – SRD 3 – Extraordinary Roundtable – COVID-19 and Food Safety and its Implications, Challenges and Solutions for the Food Industry reports published in two peer-reviewed journals
- Nature Journal Science of Food – Report by Gerald G. Moy – IUFoST/CIFST hold an Extraordinary Scientific Roundtable on COVID-19 and Food Safety;
- Journal Science of Food Bioactives – Does COVID-19 Affect Food Safety and Security? A Summary Report on the Extraordinary Scientific Roundtable of IUFoST-CIFST on March 21, 2020 by Fereidoon Shahidi
In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of food science and technology to provide safe, sufficient and nutritious food for the billions of people on lockdown or restricted conditions is now urgent and unprecedented in scope. From research and development of new food systems to the practical need of providing food for front line workers, the challenge to the food science and technology community has never been greater. To respond, IUFoST has established a COVID-19 Task Force and has held two Roundtables related to the global health crisis, which is described below.
The first roundtable was initiated when IUFoST invited the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST) to cooperate in a roundtable on COVID-19 and Food Safety. On 21 March 2020, IUFoST in collaboration with CIFST convened an Extraordinary Scientific Roundtable (SRD3) entitled COVID-19 and Food Safety and its implications, Challenges and Solutions for the Food Industry.
This Roundtable was arranged to provide preliminary guidance to the international food science and technology community and the food industry concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. IUFoST and CIFST recognized that the expert advice may be helpful to the food industry, scientific agencies and governments in ameliorating the impact of this crisis on the food supply, as well as offering suggestions for post-pandemic consideration. A summary report of this roundtable is posted on the IUFoST website (www.iufost.org).
Dr. Junshi Chen, Chief Adviser, China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment and Dr. Pingfan Rao, IUFoST Past President, Professor and founding Director of CAS.SIBS-Zhejiang Gongshang University Joint Center for Food and Nutrition Research in Hangzhou, China co-chaired the Roundtable.
The General Introduction on IUFoST and Welcome was provided by Dr. Fereidoon Shahidi, IUFoST Scientific Council Chair and the Background to this Extraordinary Roundtable was presented by IUFoST Past President and Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST) Honorary Vice President, Dr. Pingfan Rao.
The Programme: Scientific cognition of COVID-19 zoonotic disease, Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, Unit Head, Monitoring of Nutrition and Food Safety Events, International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), World Health Organization; COVID-19 and Food safety and its challenges to the food industry; Dr. Chen Junshi, Member, Chinese Academy of Engineering; Chief Advisor of China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment; The future of the food industry in the post-epidemic era, Dr. Luo Yunbo, Honorary Vice President of CIFST; Director of Research Centre for Special Food, China Agricultural University; How food industries are preparing for and coping with COVID-19 in Europe, Dr. Patrick Wall, First Chair of the European Food Safety Authority; Professor of Public Health at University College, Dublin; Member of the Ireland COVID-19 National Emergency Response Team; Work experience from the frontline of epidemic prevention in Wuhan – focus on public nutrition and health, Dr. Ding Gangqiang, Vice President of CIFST; Director of Nutrition and Health Department, China CDC; Requirements of the epidemic situation to the construction of online food safety standards, Dr. Liz Duffy, Vice-President, Walmart.
The Panel Discussion led by Dr. Junshi Chen and Dr. Pingfan Rao then considered the challenges brought by COVID 19 to the global food industry, how these challenges could be faced and how the food industry could develop in the post-epidemic era. In particular the challenges were identified as follows:
Lessons from the Pandemic:
- Based on current epidemiological data, the virus is not foodborne. The virus is transmitted through droplets, or little bits of liquid, mostly through sneezing or coughing. This conclusion has been endorsed by WHO, USFDA, EFSA and several other national food safety authorities.
- The potential presence of the virus on food packaging is not currently considered sufficient to cause infection.
- The methodology used in Wuhan to control the disease should be emulated as much as possible, i.e., identifying, admitting and isolating confirmed COVID-19 cases and following up with all known contacts.
- The capacity to isolate and treat severe case needs to be adequate. In Wuhan, hotels were used for this purpose.
- The nutritional impact of isolation and social distancing on consumers indicated that while energy-level intakes remained constant, intake of vitamins, minerals and plant-based protein and fatty acids were insufficient.
- A great reduction in physical activity was noted and could have longer-term effects on obesity and non-communicable diseases.
- As a group, the elderly did not pay sufficient attention or take adequate measures to change or control diet-related risk factors.
- The provision of safe and nutritionally balanced food to frontline workers, i.e. doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, was considered essential, and cooked food was provided to them throughout the crisis in spite of numerous difficulties.
Challenges of the Pandemic:
- Primary production may not be severely affected because of its geographic dispersal away from population densities but transportation may be a problem.
- In this regard, the timely supply of both animal feed and ingredients for food products may be threatened, particularly if imported.
- The present reliance on specific markets, products and distribution channels are not robust enough to respond to anticipated disruptions.
- In addition to the tourism and hospitality sectors, commercial catering, including restaurants and other food service establishments, will be severely disrupted with serious human and economic costs.
- Food businesses must keep their staff healthy if they are to function and this includes maximizing social distancing at work. Consumer behavior will distort the food supply chain by hoarding and panic buying that are, in many cases, fueled by false information
- E-commerce in food is undergoing tremendous growth as consumers respond to lockdowns, social distancing and fear of crowds but needs to be regulated by those engaged in e-commerce for food safety.
- Emergency measures imposed in various jurisdictions may not be consistent and may even be contradictory, resulting in blocked trade.
Implications for food safety:
- This crisis shows again the real importance of food safety – good hygiene practices must be practiced by everyone, not just those in the food industry but also by the consumer.
- Food handlers, from industry to consumer, should be reminded that they should follow the WHO Five Keys to Safer Food, particularly handwashing.
- The disruption of the food supply chain poses new and perhaps unexpected food safety risks, particularly for perishable foods.
- Information about food safety needs to be communicated in an easily understandable, scientific and thoughtful manner to all stakeholders in the food chain, from producers to consumers, particularly in uncertain and chaotic times.
Response of the food industry:
- The food industry needs to urgently respond to various disruptions to ensure that an adequate safe, sufficient and affordable food supply is maintained for the global community.
- This is especially critical for large urban populations in developing countries.
- Food businesses need be given the tools and training to be able to support diverse food supply and distribution of chains.
- The food industry needs to respond to rapid changes in the products that consumers need and want, which may require modifications in raw materials and/or processing to ensure product availability.
- Staffing in the food industry is essential if the food supply is to be maintained. Staying in operation will require staff to stay healthy.
- Social distancing in the workplace must be accommodated, especially on the factory floor. In some production lines, social distancing is not possible and the spread of the virus can decimate the workforce. Segregated workers and designated work zones can effectively address this issue.
- Employees who contract the virus need to be enabled and empowered to report and stay home. As a result, there may be labour shortages and solutions must be put in place, possibly through e-technology, regarding recruitment and training of new staff.
- Workers from commercial catering, tourism and hospitality industries with food experience can be redeployed into other parts of food industry.
- The food industry needs to allay consumers’ anxiety by clear, scientific, user-friendly messaging that do not contain false claims.
- A priority must be placed on maintaining current food safety measures and preparedness for food recalls.
Suggestions for post-pandemic consideration:
- The post-pandemic phase may result in major reviews of food systems, with special emphasis on resilience.
- This also affords opportunities for changes in agri-food systems that may make better use of locally produced foods.
- Development of safe and effective foods to promote immune function should be a priority for the food industry and governments. This may include foods for medical use by the elderly population as well as other vulnerable groups.
- A paradigm frameshift regarding safe food practices should be promoted and good food safety habits that were developed during the pandemic reinforced.
- The food science and technology community should contribute to the recovery of the food sector along with other sectors and disciplines.
- Food scientists and technologists should have a stronger role in government policy and contingency planning to ensure the resilience of the food supply chain in responding to future pandemics, including other civil emergencies.