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Keep Your Distance

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant - Life started to change on Jan. 20, 2020, when the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed. Soon afterwards, distancing became a part of our daily lives. Actions taken resulted in school closures, modified business practices, job losses, and fear of the unknown and known. I do not expect the future “new normal” to be the same as the “old normal” or “current abnormal.” I look forward to an improved new normal, where greater thought will be given to longer range thinking, planning and results, rather than what is happening at the moment.

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant

Life started to change on Jan. 20, 2020, when the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed. Soon afterwards, distancing became a part of our daily lives. Actions taken resulted in school closures, modified business practices, job losses, and fear of the unknown and known. I do not expect the future “new normal” to be the same as the “old normal” or “current abnormal.” I look forward to an improved new normal, where greater thought will be given to longer range thinking, planning and results, rather than what is happening at the moment.

“Why are we told to stay home? After all, we do not close down for flu. This is basic epidemiology. The virus is not environmental. It is not a food. It is not in water. It is not carried by mosquitoes or other insects. The virus does not move. We move. The virus moves with us. If we stop moving, the virus stops moving. If the virus does not move, it cannot find new hosts, and it cannot spread. Without new hosts, without new spread, the virus dies. The closure of everything except essential services is designed to have us move less. To stop the spread.”

These words are part of an editorial titled, “Emergency manager: Stick to facts on COVID-19,” written by Paul Seldes, a certified emergency manager and published May 6, 2020 in the Special to Treasure Coast Newspapers, US TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA.

I have been social distancing from people, places and things for more than two months at the time of writing this article. At the start, I hit the trifecta of triple wins as life approached the unknown. First, toilet paper was obtained the day before the shelves emptied. Second, the last traveling show of Shen Yun, a NYC-based Chinese dance group, was attended. Third, the last indoor restaurant seats were sat on before they were banned the next day. NYC entered the news cycle about the same time, and the remainder of the Shen Yun tour was cancelled. All this must predict a future bad omen when the Waffle House index moved to code red. This was the first time in history some Waffle Houses were closed for a non-weather event, according to Njeri Boss, Waffle House director of public relations.

Since then, it has been life at home with an occasional trip to stock up on items for the fridge and pantry. The result was an opportunity or daily challenge to come up with interesting and less interesting home-based eating experiences. It also provided time to try out untried food choices/recipes and rank them yes, no or never again. A current challenge is to figure out how to reheat a frozen burrito in a microwave without “blowout.” The daily “bad news” continues to be “bad news.”

The good news are the many acts of kindness where businesses, groups and individuals step forward daily to provide food, care and other help for people in need. My good news is to live in a place where one can go outside every day for a walk or bike ride with minimal contact with other people but also to be able to donate and volunteer to help.

“Not all of us can do great things but can do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

The current crisis gives everyone the opportunity to adjust or rethink priorities for their businesses and daily lives. The rethinking part is good, but we still need to get past the marketing that keeps telling us that “we are all in this together” or referring to “uncertain times.” We are encouraged to fear getting close to anything that has not received “intensified sanitizing.” If visual sanitizing adds confidence, it also must add value.

Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 have had a negative effect on food production, processing and distribution. On a positive note, food is considered an unlikely vector for the transfer of COVID-19.

I am sure everyone reading this is aware of the turmoil in the meat industry. Outbreaks and rapid spread of COVID-19 among workers have been common. This should not shock anyone who is aware the virus is present in the community (outside plant walls). The shock is the rapid spread of the virus between workers within the plant and/or community. On many production lines, workers are closely spaced with other workers on at least two sides. By comparison, in NYC, people are closely spaced with other people on at least four sides. It is easy to keep your distance in some places but difficult to stay outside the six-foot limit within some places.

If we look back prior to COVID-19, prevention systems have been a way of life for meat and other food processors to enhance food safety. Examples include product/process specifications, control programs, sanitation operating procedures, HACCP programs, sampling, testing and third-party audits. The programs were designed to distance pathogens and other hazards from the food we eat. In some cases, a lethal step is included when the pathogen refuses to distance themselves from the foods headed toward our tables.

Employee welfare in the past was geared mostly toward worker safety. Distancing practices were used to separate workers from dangerous equipment and other hazards. COVID-19 is now a serious public health issue within some processing environments. Behavioral practices, including distancing, are being tested and applied to detect, contain and eliminate the transfer of COVID-19, worker-to-worker. The paradigm is now shifting to assure both employee and product are safe from pathogens.

Past excuses like “we’ve never had a problem with this before so why be concerned now” is no longer applicable. One cannot argue against personal health. This calls for a whole new mindset, especially after meat processing was named part of our “critical infrastructure.” Companies are now challenged to find ways to operate and also keep workers safe.

As noted, people are now a potential host in addition to food being the host or carrier for a pathogen. Food borne and people borne components are necessary.

All systems used to control product and other risks require monitoring and record keeping. I can recall following the introduction of hold and test procedures to monitor Listeria and receiving panic calls stating, “They shipped it.” Thankfully, there were good records in place and product could be intercepted prior to reaching the customer. Hold and test soon became a normal practice like most other prevention systems do. Culture change is not always easy as people tend to distance themselves from change.

Prior to COVID-19, raw materials (livestock and poultry) were scheduled for “just in time” arrival and workers abided by “just show up” policies. With both workers and livestock distanced from processors, the system became further out of whack. Some meat plants temporarily closed or reduced capacity to provide time to determine what’s next. Hundreds of thousands of animals were distanced from a place to go. Like the nursery rhyme, some little piggies could not go to market nor cry wee-wee-wee-wee all the way home, with or without roast beef.

“We do not have a crisis of supply right now; we have a crisis in processing.” – Christopher Leonard, Author of “The Meat Racket”

Not only has COVID-19 had an impact on food production and processing, but it also has impacted food distribution practices. Retail and foodservice products, for the most part, are distanced by separate production, processing and distribution systems.  When restaurants and other away-from-home eating places were closed, products were distanced from their current customer base. This is the same scenario that was noted early on for toilet paper. The end-use may be similar, but the product, packaging and/or size may differ.

If about half of food purchased is consumed away-from-home, a huge market has distanced itself from previous customers and is challenged to find a new home. Continued use of take out, drive up, online ordering and delivery have kept the distance between restaurant and customers more manageable. When customers were distanced from restaurants, they became less distanced from retail food stores and home food preparation.

Restaurants are now opening with outside seating and limited inside seating. My observation is customers continue to practice their usual degree of either concern or unconcern with the vital few contributing to 80% of the problem. The current climate has likely made consumers more fearful of what and where food is obtained and eaten.

I consider restaurants to be food processing facilities and welcome their newfound concern for sanitation applicable to customers, employee practices and touch points. Self-serve drinks, salad, condiment and food bars have been distanced for now. This is one positive effect for which we can thank COVID-19. Cleaning touch surfaces or the perception of such is now highly visible even in places where food is not served.

Part of the abnormal we are living through is due to (1) most of what we know about COVID-19 we do not know yet, (2) failure of some to walk the talk and (3) tweets often overshadow science. Something cannot be fixed unless we think about it and accept the fact the past is gone and cannot be used as a future replacement. We cannot assume future eating habits will mock past habits.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin