As the world works to contain COVID-19 through ever-increasing vaccinations, food industry challenges linger as variant evolution and vector misinformation continue.
Just as the United States, and world at large, appeared to be on the downside of the pandemic at the beginning of 2021, with infection and transmission rates decreasing, COVID-19 threw in a curveball. Variants began evolving, first being detected in the United Kingdom, then South Africa, Brazil and the U.S. itself. The variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than the original strain, with some indication that they may cause more serious illness.
It is because of the evolution of these variants that it is critical for businesses to maintain all COVID-19 worker and customer protections — including masks, distancing and sanitation — despite the increasing availability of vaccines and state re-openings. While studies continue, it appears the vaccines fight the variants but may be a little less effective.
As of March, the U.S. had three vaccines that received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) being rolled out based on the priorities set by each state. While virtually all states prioritized health workers as the first tier, the prioritizations varied from state to state after that. Some prioritized by age and health, while others put essential workers in the first groupings. But even the categories of essential workers varied. While many had food workers ranked as “1b,” others had the industry further down the line.
Given that variation, however, all food businesses should have a plan in place. As of this writing, the latest commitment from the Biden Administration is that there will be enough vaccine for every U.S. adult to be vaccinated by May 1. So no matter where your workers are prioritized, you will need to determine if you want to encourage, incentivize or even mandate vaccinations among your workforce. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does allow employers to require vaccinations, there are exceptions, and this also may be regulated by your state or local laws. Beyond requiring vaccinations, however, many businesses are encouraging or incentivizing them, allowing paid time off, or even assisting in attainment of the vaccine. At the very least, educate your workforce to help them make informed decisions.
Since the first speculation was posted on COVID-19 transference through food, the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), FDA, Department of Agriculture (USDA) and The Acheson Group (TAG) itself have declared this to be misinformative, with there being “no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with or as a likely source of viral transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus causing COVID-19,” as USDA and FDA again stated in February. But the food industry continues to fight the perception — both from consumers and on the global level, as it faces trade restrictions and unverified news reports from China.
If these have caused queries from your customers, we recommend that you cite the FDA/USDA notice, stating that “the best available information from scientific bodies across the globe, including a continued international consensus that the risk is exceedingly low for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans via food and food packaging.” Or from TAG itself: “As has been widely declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. CDC and FDA, China CDC, the European Food Safety Authority and many others, including TAG — there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 through food.”
We have been living with COVID-19 for more than a year. While we are now seeing some re-normalization of life, do not expect that the virus will quickly disappear. It is now a part of our world, like the flu, measles and other viruses for which we are vaccinated. It is very likely that, for some period of time, COVID-19 vaccines, like those for the flu, will be dispensed annually, at least in part to account for the variants or strains. In the past, coronavirus epidemics such as SARS have gone away. Perhaps, in time, COVID-19 will follow the same path. While we can hope that is the case, hope is not a good planning strategy. COVID-19 has changed our world. And there is at least a part of it that will never return to the pre-pandemic norm.