Food safety and quality

Webinar outlines how to keep agri-food workers safe during the pandemic


While COVID-19 is not transmitted via food, the virus that causes the disease can be transmitted from person to person and affect producers, processors and distributors while at work, unless suitable precautionary measures are taken. An FAO-led webinar today focused on what measures to use to protect the health of those working along the food supply chain. ‘Getting MAD’ is the solution proposed by FAO Food Safety Officer Jeffrey LeJeune, who explained in an opening presentation that the acronym stands for: Masks, Air and Distance.

“Face masks effectively lower the probabilty of COVID transmission in most situations,” he said, emphasizing that it is better to combine them with ventilation and physical distancing in indoor environments where people may breathe the same air as others, such as food processing facilities. The challenges are greater in lower-middle income countries where communities face the threat of food insecurity, are more dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and tend to have less access to healthcare, personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines, he said.

Halshka Graczyk, Technical Specialist on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Labour Administration, from the Labour Inspection and Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the International Labour Organization (ILO) also gave a presentation at the webinar called ‘Keeping workers safe along the food supply chain'. Every workplace and worker is unique, Graczyk pointed out, advising that risk be assessed and managed according to the specificities of operations, premises and type of work. She also urged that PPE, training and information be made available to workers.

The webinar included other experts from FAO as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) in discussing global guidelines and sharing experiences in the most acutely food insecure contexts.

Wilson Makuwaza, Livestock Development Officer with FAO South Sudan, centred his remarks on the importance of preventing disease outbreaks to avoid overburdening healthcare systems, which also entails attention to food hygiene and sanitation. It is cheaper to invest in risk reduction, said Makuwaza. “For early detection of future outbreaks, it is important to strengthen surveillance/early warning systems, especially in hard to reach rural areas,” he said, also noting the importance of collaboration across sectors.

Chairperson of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe Food Safety and Sustainability Working Group, Simon Doherty, elaborated on the point that today’s concern with COVID-19 is more about worker health than contamination of food.  Food animals are not reservoirs, he explained, underscoring that transmission is via aerosols and droplets from person to person and foodborne transmission has not been documented.

COVID-19 is a health crisis as well as an economic and social crisis, said Peter Sousza Hoejskov, Food Safety and Zoonotic Diseases Officer at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, who touched on the One Health lens as a way to see and understand complex food systems. COVID-19 has the potential to disrupt food supply chains, he said, calling for protection of workers through various measures, including vaccination. Less people will get sick, which will lead to less disruption to food supply chains and better opportunities for ensuring the availability of a safe and plentiful food supply.

The chat box moved swiftly with many of the 200 Zoom meeting participants posing questions, relaying greetings and sharing resources. Questions were raised for instance on whether food packaging can be a source of transmission of COVID-19, to which Markus Lipp, FAO Senior Food Safety Officer, replied that food surfaces and food packaging have not been found to cause COVID-19.

The discussion included a point on the possibility of vaccinated people contracting COVID-19, which means, according to Hoejskov, that the need for other preventive measure will continue.

The webinar, moderated by Simone Moraeis Raszl, WHO Food Safety Advisor for the Western Pacific Region, was organized by FAO’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience Global Programme Support Team as part ofthe Knowledge sharing platform on resilience (KORE) with support from FAO's Food Systems and Food Safety Division. Part of a series on "Strengthening multi-sectoral coordination across relevant sectors to mitigate risks of COVID-19 transmission along the food supply chain", the event was also made possible through support provided by the European Union, under the Partnership Programme contributing to the Global Network Against Food Crises, and by the U.S. Agency for International Development Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.

Access FAO’s Knowledge-sharing platform on resilience (KORE)

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