In the new reality that the world is experiencing due to the coronavirus pandemic, authorities are working together with the food and beverage industry and supermarkets to ensure that the food supply chain from the fields to the table is not disrupted and that product safety is maintained.
“The retail supply chain remains strong,” said Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner, FDA Office of Food Policy and Response.
He acknowledged that there are empty shelves in supermarkets due to the unusual demand for products, but said this is temporary. He sent a message of reassurance to industry and consumers by reiterating that “the food supply in the United States remains safe and there is no shortage of groceries.
“Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the U.S. and there are currently no wide-spread disruptions reported in the supply chain,” he added.
Yiannas participated in an FDA conference call with Michael Rogers, Assistant Commissioner for Human and Animal Food Operations, Office of Regulatory Affairs, and Dr. Susan Mayne, Director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The officials discussed food supply and safety issues related to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
“I want to be very clear, there is no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with coronavirus transmission. This is not a foodborne gastrointestinal virus-like norovirus or hepatitis A,” Yiannas said.
FDA is working with manufacturers and distributors to address challenges caused by quarantines or movement restrictions that may be impeding their ability to continue to work and move food products.
Routine Surveillance Inspections Has Been Postponed
Regarding changes to the FDA’s domestic routine surveillance facility inspections procedures in factories and farms, Michael Rogers said that during the coronavirus pandemic they will focus their inspection resources on those sites that are critical and postpone for the time being the routine surveillance inspections they had planned for this fiscal year.
“The safety of the food supply is a shared responsibility between the regulators and the industry. And during this period quite frankly I think will be leveraging, even more, the role the industry has to ensure that the food supply is safe for all consumers,” Rogers said.
The FDA will change its procedures for conducting inspections that are regularly done without notice. From now on, they will be announcing when they are going to perform inspections.
The agency will temporarily not enforce FSMA supplier verification onsite audit requirements if other appropriate supplier verification methods are used instead. Other methods of supplier verification, such as sampling and testing or review of food safety records, would be designed to provide sufficient assurance that hazards have been significantly minimized or prevented during the period of delay of the on-site audit.
Food Manufacturers/Distributors Working Non-Stop
For their part, food manufacturers and distributors around the United States have expressed their commitment to maintaining the supply chain uninterrupted while caring for their employees to protect them from the coronavirus.
Esteban Abascal, CEO of Texas-based Interamerican Foods and La Moderna USA, a subsidiary of La Moderna that is Mexico’s largest pasta manufacturer, spoke with Abasto about their efforts to get their products to supermarket shelves in the U.S. without interruption.
“We have taken all the sanitary measures to be able to guarantee the safety of all our employees and also ensure the safety of the food we are supplying through our logistics chain,” said Abascal.
La Moderna USA’s pasta manufacturing plant in Cleburne, Texas is working at full capacity and they activated an extra shift in order to increase their production volumes and fully supply the supermarkets.
“We are estimating a production of 1,100 to 1,200 tons of pasta per week and before this crisis occurred because of the coronavirus we were producing around 850 tons per week,” said Abascal.
The CEO of Interamerican Foods asked the community to have peace of mind to face this crisis, “to know that product will reach the shelves, although there was a peak in demand, the distribution channels across the United States are solid, so be assured that you will have your food, there is no need to add one more fear to what we face today, together we will move forward and it shall pass”.
A recent Nielsen study identified how consumer purchasing behavior about certain commodities has changed from before the coronavirus outbreak to the end of February when the epidemic took hold in the United States.
Another leading Hispanic food company, La Fe-GraceKennedy, which distributes frozen and canned products along the country’s east coast, has also doubled its efforts to stabilize the food supply chain.
“Understanding the high demand from our customers and consumers, we have increased operating shifts in order to respond positively to the supply of our products. We also have a robust inventory line that allows us to address this situation,” Andrés Falquez, category marketing manager for La Fe-GraceKennedy, told Abasto.
“Many of the products in our portfolio come from our own processing plants, which is why we have implemented contingency plans in order to meet the needs of the market in the midst of this emergency,” added Falquez.
GraceKennedy is also implementing business preparedness and response plans, including weekly communication and specific guidance on measures to prepare its employees on how to respond to the local spread of the coronavirus. Falquez said that 70 percent of the management team is working remotely to ensure that the operation can respond to the demands of its customers and consumers.
In Central Florida, the grocery distributor Titan Products is also making a major effort to help expedite the delivery of food products to supermarkets. From the management staff to the last of its employees have worked tirelessly transporting products to the stores.
Independent Supermarkets in The Front Lines
“This is a demand issue, not a supply issue,” said Heather Garlich, vice president of media and public relations for the Food Industry Association-IMF. “The supply chain is not broken. The stores are taking out as much inventory as possible in a 24-hour period.”
In this regard, the National Supermarket Association (NSA), which represents more than 400 independent Hispanic supermarket owners in New York and other cities along the East Coast, released a statement on the efforts they are making to serve the tens of thousands of people who shop at their stores.
“In times like these of crisis, local independent supermarkets serve as the lifeline of their communities, providing customers and local residents with a place they can continue to get the things they need to survive. We are especially mindful of our most vulnerable customers: seniors and those with underlying health conditions. To that end, we continue to make every effort to ensure that our seniors have access to groceries and other items they need. We accomplish this through free delivery programs and providing no-cost transportation for seniors to get to and from the supermarket with ease.”
NSA President William Rodriguez and Executive Director Elizabeth Peralta in the statement also highlighted the people who work in the stores every day and makes sure the food supply is maintained, workers “who do not have the option of telecommuting during this crisis and must put their health at risk to come in every day and man the stores. They are some of the unsung heroes of this crisis and it goes without saying that we are indebted to them.”