Expanded Practices for Growers
As concerns over the spread of COVID-19 remain, so do questions around how we interact with and produce foods, in order to keep our employees and our customers safe.
We underscore that West Virginia farms and farm markets are considered essential businesses and operations during West Virginia’s stay-at-home order. During this time, West Virginia farms and farm markets are encouraged to remain open for business to provide a local supply of fresh, healthy, nutrient-dense and affordable food products. It is a win-win for customers and farms. But, we must also do our part to maintain a safe and robust food supply for our consumers, while protecting our employees.
For those who have participated in previous food safety trainings, the good news is you may already have incorporated food safety best practices on your farm and may just need to ramp up your actions. For others, now is the best time to take the necessary steps to implement a food safety plan on your farm.
Currently, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19 (F. Yiannis, FDA Commissioner of Food Policy and Response, April, 2020). COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, most likely to be transmitted from person-to-person through respiratory droplets, or by touching surfaces contaminated with aerosol settling or other bodily fluids from an infected person and then touching your nose, mouth and eyes. To control the spread, in addition to the practices covered at your regular food safety training courses, we suggest expanded practices in worker health, hygiene and training, and cleaning and sanitizing protocols. These practices should be applied on the farm, as well as at all farm market outlets.
Employees should be encouraged to practice social distancing in the fields, packing areas, break areas and in all interactions with the public. It may be necessary to rearrange seating and vending areas and use floor markings as a reminder stay at least 6 feet apart. Non-contact communication devices, such as walkie-talkies and cellphones, may be used more frequently during this time, so be sure these are cleaned and sanitized regularly. Partitioning with cleanable shields, such as plexiglass, and staggering customers visits or using no-contact pick-up options are encouraged for interactions with the public.
Hand hygiene remains highly important; wet, soap, lather and scrub hands for at least 20 seconds, rinse thoroughly and dry hands with single-use towel. Hand sanitizers may be used in addition to, not instead of, hand-washing. However, if soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% to 70% alcohol to cover all hand surfaces and rub together until dry; and remember to wash your hands at the earliest opportunity.
Single-use gloves are recommended for use when handling ready-to-eat foods. Follow best practices when putting on and removing gloves, including washing and drying hands, holding gloves by the edge, selecting the right size and checking for rips and tears frequently. Single-use gloves can be used for up to four hours if continuing the same task but should be changed sooner if they become dirty or torn, after coughing and sneezing in them, after putting on or removing face coverings, and before beginning a new task.
Face covering policies will differ from operation to operation. Disposable face coverings are meant for one-time use, so remember to change them once the task is completed, or if they become soiled, moist or damaged. For cloth face coverings, follow the CDC guidelines for suitable fabrics and launder daily, drying them at the highest setting the material will allow.
Keeping sick employees and customers away from the farm and vending premises is always important. This may likely already be part of your farm practices, but this is a good time to emphasize and reinforce this policy. Educating employees on the symptoms of COVID-19 and where to go for testing, encouraging them to report symptoms and having flexible leave policies will be important at this time. Consider doing wellness checks and identifying resources to support employees while they are out of work.
Return-to-work policies should be in place – if employees have not been tested, they should return to work only if they have not had a fever for at least 72 hours (unmedicated) and have no coughing and shortness of breath, or at least seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared; if employees were tested, they should only return to work if they have had two consecutive negative tests 24 hours apart. It may be necessary to fill positions due to absenteeism – consider cross-training, employing out-of-work individuals and writing training procedures for smoother transitions during this time.
COVID-19 is not considered a foodborne pathogen, but it can survive and spread via hard surfaces. This is a good time to review, improve and reinforce your regular standard operating procedures for cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and drying any food contact surfaces, food handling equipment, harvest bins and tools.
To clarify, cleaning means using soap and water to remove impurities, sanitizing is using a product labeled for sanitizing to reduce bacterial load to a safe level, disinfecting typically involves higher concentrations of a product labeled as a disinfectant to kill germs and drying means allowing the surfaces to dry completely before use. Cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces, such as harvest bins, wash line food contact surfaces and sorting and packing tables, should be a routine part of your farm food safety plan. However, if you have a known or probable hazard, such as visible feces, bodily fluids or blood, or an employee is found to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, cleaning and disinfecting is appropriate. This involves using a higher concentration and/or longer contact times of a disinfecting chemical on high touch areas or surfaces with visible contamination. Some common sanitizers, including Clorox, Sanidate, Tsunami and Vigorox, may be adjusted for use as a disinfectant; be sure to read the labels or see the EPA Disinfectant Registration List for more information.