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In a Pandemic, Everyone Must Adapt to Ensure Safe Food

COVID-19 has affected the way our food is supplied, traded, and purchased, which gives rise to new or different risks that must be considered to ensure it is safe at all times. Mary Kenny is the Food and Agriculture Organization’s food safety and consumer protection officer for the Europe and Central Asia region, based at the regional office in Budapest. She spoke with FAO communication officer Victoria Kalinin to mark World Food Safety Day (June 7), about how FAO is helping countries in the region within this effort.

Mary Kenny

What specific food safety concerns have arisen in Europe and Central Asia due to COVID-19 pandemic?

Mary Kenny: When the lockdowns started, two main concerns immediately emerged: does food transmit the virus and will there be enough food available? Globally trusted scientific assessment bodies stated that there was no evidence that food can transmit the virus.

While some industries shut down, the food industry had to continue working as much as the situation allowed. In some countries, food business operators were concerned that some ingredients or raw materials may be unavailable or in short supply, or essential staff may not be able to work due to public health restrictions. Concerns of the competent authorities included distribution of unsafe food due to adjustments in supply patterns, sale of food in unhygienic conditions, and an increase in food fraud.

The pandemic highlights the importance of applying sound principles of sanitation, personal hygiene, and established food safety practices to keep our food supply safe, which gives a special emphasis to this year’s World Food Safety Day.

The need for effective communication and collaboration among everyone in the food chain (academia, government, producers, operators, consumers) to prevent hazards and minimize risks, has become more evident.

I assume people are seeking trustworthy information, which in the case of food safety, can come from international organizations and national authorities. Can you give us some examples from the region?

MK: Competent authorities have a critical role to play during this pandemic in informing consumers on the practices to be followed, as well as working with the food industry to ensure continued safe food supply.

Many countries have established informative websites and shared COVID-19 guidelines developed for food producers, importers, the catering sector, and consumers. Examples include Norway, Hungary and Turkey, which have prepared sector-specific guidelines covering food, aquaculture, and livestock, while Ireland has launched a frequently asked question style website and a consultative e-mail advice line. Norway has also resourced inspectors with guidance on conducting good digital audits and obtaining sensitive information from companies electronically.

Romanian authorities have organized videoconferences for food retailers and restaurants to inform them on the measures necessary for reopening, and safe production, preparation, delivery, and serving of food, and on how to train their personnel on general hygiene practices and disinfection plans. North Macedonia published practical advice to food business operators to prevent staff and consumers from spreading the virus, along with the adoption of measures for safe and uninterrupted flow of food, goods and animals, and guidance on safe online purchasing of food.

At the global level, FAO and WHO has also developed “Food Safety in the Time of COVID-19” guidelines for food safety authorities, food business operators, and consumers.

What habits have changed and what are the implications for food safety?

MK: Everyone has had to adapt. People reportedly started cooking more at home and changed the way they buy food, for example by shifting to home deliveries and online food shopping as restaurants and coffee shops have closed. This highlights the importance of increasing consumers’ awareness of safe food handling practices. Many have also started to purchase food from local sources and at times directly from the farmer. So small-scale food businesses need to be informed as well and follow food safety management systems and practices.

Certain community initiatives have also sprung up to replace school meals for children, directly providing the food to their homes. There are also innovative methods arising to reduce food waste through food baskets, food banks, and electronic platforms, linking suppliers to buyers and consumers.

Food businesses and food production facilities have upscaled on disinfection and sanitation, introduced physical distancing requirements and protective equipment for personnel, and guided staff on best practices to minimize the risk to spread the virus.

As for official controls, Norway, for instance, has increased the use of electronic certificates for import control of animal and plant products and prepared a rapid risk assessment of possible increased food crime related to the pandemic, which also aims to prevent illegal online sales of products that are falsely advertised as preventing or curing COVID-19.

Some of these habits are likely to stay. What can we expect in the food safety field in the near future, and what does it entail for food regulators and competent authorities?

MK: I know that food safety authorities across the region are actively considering potential food safety impacts and adapting how they work, as remote working due to movement limitations affects their staff, too. Balancing restrictions on staff with the need to maintain the safety and integrity of the food supply chain and support international trade, food safety regulators need to prioritize critically important services during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and eventually reduce some routine activities. The experience gained from the pandemic may give a boost to use of information technologies for food safety such as e-certification, blockchain data, and increased use of electronic documentation.

Some changes in food supply chain are likely to continue beyond the pandemic, such as online ordering and third-party delivery, e-commerce, and bringing new food safety risks and challenges that need to be analyzed well and addressed appropriately. Traceability, information sharing, data generation, and analysis are crucial here.

In addition to selling more food online, food business operators may continue to adapt, or even change, their business models, for instance, from restaurants to takeaway sales. There may also be an emergence of volunteer groups that establish new food operations. As the lockdown measures lift, the food business sector will revive and adapt; implementing physical distancing measures and increasing sanitation facilities to protect the health of their personnel will be part of the day to day routine.

What is FAO doing in the region?

MK: FAO supports measures that ensure the continuity of supply chains so that people have access to safe and nutritious food during the pandemic. This includes helping countries assess the short- and medium-term impacts, providing policy guidance for agricultural and food systems highlighting food safety, organizing thematic webinars, and facilitating mutual learning and sharing of good practices.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was established in October 1945. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, that makes it the oldest permanent specialized agency of the UN. It is tasked with eliminating hunger and improving nutrition and standards of living by increasing agricultural productivity. The regional office for Europe and Central Asia has been based in Budapest since 2008 (the Hungarian capital had been home to the Sub regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe from 1996). An SSC also opened here at in 2008 to provide a centralized administrative support system for FAO offices and employees worldwide.