The coronavirus pandemic has presented unique challenges for those working to put edible food to use safely while reducing waste. ReFED launched a COVID-19 webinar discussion series to help professionals along the food supply chain navigate these uncertain times with expert panelists who discussed some of those challenges and possible solutions.
During one discussion, “Safe Operations & Food Handling During COVID-19,” insight was provided by Ben Chapman of North Carolina State University, Tracy Chang of Pagu Restaurant, Su-Lin Terhell of Replate, and Kevin Smith of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Cambridge, Mass.-based Pagu Restaurant has connected donors, restaurants, and health care centers in order to provide economic relief for vulnerable employees. Early efforts involved a pilot whereby 90 meals were delivered to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“We said we can make food — that’s not a problem,” says Tracy Chang, owner of Pagu. “But as I was doing the pilot and drove food to the drop-offs, I realized if we were to do this at scale responsibly, we need to put together SOPs [standard operating procedures] because there is not a lot of guidance from local or national legislation.”
The restaurant team turned to doctors and scientists for information and listened to what was going on in other countries that were hit hard by COVID-19. From what they learned, an initiative called “Off Their Plate” was born to equip restaurant workers to meet COVID-informed protocol and to raise funds for partner restaurants so they can continue employing and supporting their staff. In just over a month, Pagu grew its offerings to nine cities nationwide with over $3 million in funding, which provides meals to restaurants workers and to health care providers caring for people with COVID-19.
The efforts entailed developing SOPs that Chang hopes will serve as tools for others who work with food and include practices around proper handwashing and masks among precautionary measures.
In talking to experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chang learned that kitchen workers should wear masks that allow air to flow sideways rather than downward.
“In preparing food, a bandanna is not recommended because air goes down into the food, and there is an added risk for COVID spread,” Chang says. “We also learned that droplets from sneezing or coughing can spread 23 feet, so we recommend procedures for disinfecting a larger radius around someone who sneezes or coughs.”
Pagu put out educational videos and infographics in several languages covering several topics. For example, one video shows which parts of the hand are most difficult to wash thoroughly.
The initiative plans to make its instructional videos available for broader use, Chang says.
Ben Chapman, a professor at North Carolina State University, is among researchers trying to understand how long the virus survives on surfaces and how it gets transferred in restaurants.
“The uncertainty of the biology and epidemiology of the virus are the biggest challenges my group faces, and we are trying to provide steps that are actionable and practices for those in the food supply chain to follow,” Chapman says. “As different jurisdictions are looking at steps to reopen and are relaxing physical distancing, we get questions around how the food industry would manage this. We get questions around what are the risks, and how do we protect employees and patrons?”
Temperature has been a research focus, Chapman says. Scientists know the virus is not stable at high temperatures but don’t know exactly what temperature will eradicate it in food products.
Early on there were concerns expressed about food donations being impacted due to the virus’ movement on food and packages. But Chapman says there are no examples of food or food packaging related to the illness.
“The science does not say we should do anything different from a food safety standpoint to be safe while trying to eliminate waste,” he says.
Chapman, like some other scientists working to further understand the virus and risks, says there are other precautionary measures that are important.
“I think we are on the right track by highlighting sanitizing contact surfaces and being mindful that hands can move the virus around,” Chapman says. He emphasizes the importance of handwashing after handling boxes.
Chang’s operation is also zeroing in on boxes. Workers sanitize then quarantine cardboard boxes for days and repurpose them to carry takeout containers. Boxes of food are taken to the health center, and then coordinators come out with carts and take them into the facility, averting direct contact among parties.
Replate picks up food donations from caterers, offices with meal services, and other surplus food generators and delivers them to local nonprofits serving people who might otherwise go hungry. The organization experienced a huge shift when COVID-19 hit.
“Nonprofits that we had given meals to closed, so we had to think about how to adjust,” says Replate’s Su-Lin Terhell.
Replate is shifting to a home delivery model so people can still receive food but in way that is contactless and ensures food rescuers’ safety.
The organization established processes for contactless delivery and prepares and packages food in the kitchen so there is less opportunity for delivery workers to come into contact with the food. Since the food is donated, there are no payment transactions that could involve contact.
“It’s usually knocking on the door, leaving the package, and walking away,” Terhell says. “We have contact numbers to reach out if no one comes to receive the food. There are a lot of ways to communicate without having to do face-to-face.”
Regarding liabilities, Replate has not run into any issues as it works to make its processseamless and safe.
Kevin Smith of the FDA emphasizes that local health departments can provide instrumental information about food safety as organizations shift to new ways of working through COVID-19.
Smith says it may be easier to access sanitizers than disinfectants that the Environmental Protection Agency lists as effective against the virus. But he emphasizes that handwashing after handling boxes would accomplish the same risk reduction.
“Now we have a new set of lessons that have to be learned about how to operate business in a way that does not put people at risk for COVID-19,” Smith says. “FDA and other federal partners are doing the best we can to try and get information out.”
Smith says he encourages industry to go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for guidance on controlling the spread of the virus. He suggests FDA’s site for information on food safety, including information for retail food service sectors about precautionary practices and guidance on what to do if an employee tests positive.
To address food surpluses due to businesses having lower demand, the FDA will exercise flexibility in terms of labeling of some food that is redirected to retail markets. These terms are at the FDA’s website, Smith says.
“Everyone should be sure there is no excess that goes to waste when it’s needed elsewhere, so we are having flexibility in labeling,” he says.