How do I maintain social distancing in my food production facility where employees typically work within close distances? It is one of the questions growers have to deal with these days. The risk of an employee transmitting COVID-19 to another is dependent on distance between employees, the duration of the exposure, and the effectiveness of employee hygiene practices and sanitation. When it’s impractical for employees in these settings to maintain social distancing, effective hygiene practices should be maintained to reduce the chance of spreading the virus, the FDA advises.
"Maintaining social distancing in the absence of effective hygiene practices may not prevent the spread of this virus. Food facilities should be vigilant in their hygiene practices, including frequent and proper hand-washing and routine cleaning of all surfaces."
"Because the intensity of the COVID-19 outbreak may differ according to geographic location, coordination with state and local officials is strongly encouraged for all businesses so that timely and accurate information can guide appropriate responses in each location where their operations reside."
What should growers do?
The university of Vermont Extension has posted a document and a podcast discussing Considerations for Fruit and Vegetable Growers Related to Coronavirus & COVID-19.
1. Stay Away from Produce if Sick – If someone is sick, they should be nowhere near fruit and vegetables that others are going to eat. This is likely already part of your farm’s food safety plan and policies, but this is a good reminder to emphasize and enforce the policy. Make sure employees stay home if they feel sick and send them home if they develop symptoms at work. Consider posting signs asking customers not to shop at your farm stand if they have symptoms.
2. Practice Social Distancing – By putting a bit more space between you and others you can reduce your chances of getting ill. This might mean limiting or prohibiting farm visitors or reducing the number of off-farm meetings you attend in person. Avoid shaking hands and other physical contact. This also reduces the risk of your produce coming into contact with someone who is ill before it heads to market.
3. Minimize the Number of Touches - Consider changes in your policies and operations that minimize the number of times produce is touched by different people. This may include workers, distributors, and customers. More examples are provided in the Q&A section.
4. Wash Your Hands – Reinforce the importance of washing hands well when arriving at work, when changing tasks (e.g. moving from office work to wash/pack), before and after eating, after using the bathroom, before putting on gloves when working with produce, and after contact with animals. Soap + water + 20 seconds or more are needed to scrub all surfaces of your hands and fingers thoroughly. Then, dispose of paper towels in a covered, lined trash container.
5. Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Drying – According to the FDA, there is no indication that this virus has spread via food. But, we know viruses (including SARS-CoV-2) survive and spread via hard surfaces. Farms handle produce using tools and equipment with surfaces. We also know that produce has surfaces. Viruses, in general, can be relatively long-lasting in the environment, and have the potential to be transferred via food or food contact surfaces. So, there’s no better time than the present to review, improve, and reinforce your standard operating procedures for cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and drying any food contact surfaces, food handling equipment, bins, and tools. More info is provided in the Q&A section. Remember, cleaning means using soap and water, sanitizing is using a product labeled for sanitizing, disinfecting typically involves higher concentrations of a product labeled for disinfection, and drying means allowing the surfaces to dry completely before use.
6. Plan for Change – Many produce farms are lean operations run by one or two managers and a minimal crew. Do you have a plan for if you become severely ill? How do things change if half your workforce is out sick? More business and labor planning guidance is available at the Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development site.
The complete resource provides information on health and food safety steps that growers should take, as well as planning and communication advice for markets and farmers markets. It also provides examples of what leading farms and markets are doing to address risk.
Meanwhile, Virginia Cooperative Extension has also made a factsheet available on Covid-19 and food safety, asking if the coronavirus is an issue in produce production.
Finally, for more information on the economic impact of COVID-19 on local food markets in the US, be sure to take a look at this overview from the NSAC.