Systems thinking solutions to minimize COVID-19 transmission risk in the food industry

Packaging provides the invisible “chain of custody” and its importance has increased with rising

From the supply and manufacturing perspectives, the quarantines, restrictions, closures and fear have limited the labor movement and worker numbers. These issues have also elevated transportation costs due to disrupted supply chain routes and impacted food banks. On the other hand, consumers have become more health-conscious and eager to improve their immune systems with fresh and “free from” foods. Mandatory curfews and limited dining out have forced changes in consumption and demand patterns, leading to more time spent in the kitchen and increased take-out and delivery. At the same time, the main emphasis has become the origin of food and the food business’ ability to minimize contamination risk during preparation and distribution.

Although no evidence suggests that COVID-19 is transmittable through foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both consumers and the value chain would like to ensure food products prevent potential transmission. The concern is mainly due to possible viral infectivity through sick workers, materials and improper handling and sanitation. The recent COVID-19 infection rates among workers in the US meat industry have heightened concerns about transmission during processing and preparation, shortage of labor and the possible impacts on consumer health. The answer to these problems may be found in system thinking solutions.

Systems thinking approach

Since all the issues are tightly connected, the solutions implemented in one part of the food value chain can have significant impacts in other parts, providing the basis of a systems thinking. The systems thinking motivates decision-makers to consider the elements of a system as a whole instead of focusing only on isolated parts, which prepares the industry to be more resilient against shocks in the food system. For example, setting up a guideline for personal protection equipment (PPE) and sanitation only during preparation and handling while disregarding the rules during delivery or how to handle infected workers can cause an elevated risk and subsequent failure for the whole system.

Thus, systems thinking is essential to minimize the various risks, including cross-contamination during contact points and handling and losses. Equally, this approach is necessary to capitalize on changing consumer behaviors, preserve consumer trust and mitigate the negative impacts of a severely disrupted supply chain.

Food manufacturing, preparation and delivery
Even though the research is not yet available on time-temperature protocols for COVID-19 risk in foods, temperatures above 56oC (132.8oF) were sufficient to reduce the previous SARS viral concentrations rendering heat processing such as cooking as one of the critical points. The reduction can be less when the product contains protein such as meats and seafood.

The main points of concern are related to the cross-contamination for a cooked product or raw meat product. Putting extra emphasis on HACCP procedures along with additional control points tailored for the minimization of food contact during back and front of house operations and handling is vital. Suggested examples include opting for contactless handling and restocking with the aid of packaging display cases where possible, putting products on hold to allow the necessary time for a potential infectability to pass, utilizing and regularly changing PPE and cloth face coverings, selecting EPA-approved cleaners and sanitizers for surface applications suitable for food applications and frequently hand sanitizing before, during and after food handling.

Decontamination strategies for used PPE such as masks can be adopted in case of a potential PPE shortage. Examples include chlorine dioxide based controlled-release strips by Aptar, vapor hydrogen peroxide sprays by Batelle and CovaGuard spray by Covalon. The viral infectivity tests for market-ready products on COVID-19 are still underway.

Another option is to place UV-C lights for surface or air treatments. The CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have published guidance for food processing facilities. The modifications can include standard 6-feet distance in the handling and workstation setting and the use of separators facilitating distancing of handlers working across or near one another during transportation and in the breakrooms. Even though the “one size does not fit all” approach is suggested, essential hygiene guidelines by the regulatory authorities are vital to follow on a systems level.

Food contact packaging

Packaging provides the invisible “chain of custody” and its importance has increased with rising consumer concern for the safe handling of products. Packaging solutions can be two-fold. The first is the modification of packaging materials for direct and indirect contact to include antiviral agents, most of which are effective against primary pathogens and spoilage microorganisms. Metal based ions and nanoparticles are promising against various viruses in foods such as norovirus but regulatory limitations are one of the drawbacks.

The level of restriction varies according to the primary layer of the embedded antiviral agent. Selecting antimicrobial and antiviral GRAS substances as ingredients or a direct addition to packaging materials can minimize and even prevent the infectivity for extended days. Reusable and returnable packaging companies can benefit from materials embedded with antiviral agents that are stable under changing cleaning procedures. The second is facilitating a reduced probability of infectivity via package-level tracking, reduced number of contact points during handling and restocking and better control of environmental conditions.

Naturally, the urgency of the ongoing pandemic forces authorities to focus primarily on health-related implications. However, the challenges are not solely related to sanitation. The resilience of food systems, predicting short- and long-term changes in consumption patterns such as excessive stockpiling of foods and increased food waste due to foodservice closures like milk dumped by farmers will also require systems thinking approaches.

Dr Ziynet Boz. Ph.D., Research Associate, Packaging Technology and Research LLC.

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