“Normal” may never be the same for food processors. The health of employees, how to engage them in this new normal, and their general welfare – on top of food safety, sanitation and hygiene practices – have been brought to the forefront because of COVID-19. Causes for concern around food safety and quality were already present during normal times for food processing plants.
The pandemic has heightened these concerns through:
- A shift in focus on preventing the virus from spreading at plants
- Switching from traditional foodservice and institutional customers to grocery stores
- Keeping up with demand
- Challenges with product supply
The pandemic had also reduced the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) frequency of and methods for food inspections. Only in late July 2020 did the FDA announce they would continue inspections at a broader level. The agency will prioritize site inspections based on a new risk-assessment system.
To improve food safety and quality during these times of uncertainty, food processors should consider:
1. Protecting your employees
The threat of the virus and its variants will continue to be a significant concern for some time. It’s important to continue to enforce policies that keep employees at least six feet apart to prevent the virus from spreading. This is not limited to the plant floor and should be considered for other areas of the facility, including cafeterias, break rooms, or any communal spaces.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommended that (1) plants should work directly with appropriate state and local public health officials and occupational safety and health professionals; (2) incorporate relevant aspects of CDC guidance as needed, and (3) incorporate guidance from other authoritative sources or regulatory bodies as appropriate. Reinforce the need for employees to take precautions before coming back to work.
Encourage employees to wash their hands often (for at least 20 seconds) and to stay home if they’re ill. Employees should only return to work once they’ve been cleared by a doctor. Many manufacturing companies have implemented temperature checks as an employee in-processing step in order to encourage safe behavior.
2. Opportunities for continued diligence
It starts with management: With the additional distractions the virus has caused in a food plant environment, it’s important to review what your company is currently doing to address these concerns. How do you continue to lead the effort and focus on food safety and quality? It starts with management’s ongoing commitment to and communication of food safety processes, especially in these areas with new risks. Provide training for employees to ensure food safety is always top-of-mind. Leverage training from suppliers which can provide an opportunity to help employees stay vigilant and share best practices.
3. Adopting state-of-the-art cryogenic freezing and chilling technology
Cryogenic freezing and chilling help food processors increase quality and efficiency, decrease loss and expense, enhance shelf life and boost productivity. Cryogenic gases – such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen – along with state-of-the-art freezing and chilling technology in operations can quickly reduce the temperature and lock in the moisture of food products.
This can lead to significantly increased productivity (where temperature control is a bottleneck) along with the preservation of food quality. The speed of cryogenics can also prove beneficial for food processors. Long-lasting, hygienically designed freezing technology can provide a better-quality frozen product when compared to a traditional mechanical freezing method. Impingement freezing, for example, locks in the natural flavors, moisture, and nutrients of the product. Cryogenics provides an opportunity for up to 10 times less dehydration than conventional freezers, further preserving food quality and increasing yield.
4. Assessing supply chain processes
During this time of uncertainty, certain ingredients, spices, and other food items that were already difficult to source may not be available. There may be a natural urge to switch to a lower-grade or alternative ingredient or food item, compromising the quality of the end-product.
Assess your supply chain: Switching to a new supplier that can meet the need on short notice seems like a natural course of action. But do not make this decision with haste – evaluate your new supplier, do not take any shortcuts and adopt “virtual plant audits” that leverage digital technologies to assist with your search if your employees do not feel comfortable traveling.
According to Refrigerated and Frozen Foods Magazine, a lasting impact COVID-19 will have on the cold chain for the rest of the year and likely into 2021, is a reduction in the number of SKUs to keep the supply chain moving quickly. This should provide further support for the need to assess your current supply chain.
5. Employee safety and health in addition to food safety
Provide proper sanitation systems to eliminate the bacterial hazards that may exist in a food plant as well as reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 among employees. Make sure to document the sanitization of the workplace so employees see you’re being proactive in addressing their health and safety.
6. Full traceability based on data
A spreadsheet may not provide the flexibility for you to take quick and preventative actions in time of a crisis, recall, or health emergency. According to Food Safety Magazine, throughout the supply chain, businesses that are using antiquated systems or tracking processes not specifically designed for the food industry struggle with traceability. Newer cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems now provide capabilities, with real-time management and reaction, like never before.
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