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FDA Insight: Food Safety and COVID-19

FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., returns to FDA Insight to discuss food safety issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

FDA Insight: Episode 3 – Transcript

>> Anand Shah: Hello and welcome back to another episode of our podcast, FDA Insight. I'm Dr. Anand Shah, the deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs here at the Food and Drug Administration. And I'm delighted you're joining us for our third episode. This week, we'll be discussing COVID-19 and food safety, a topic that's important to consumers, the healthcare community, as well as manufacturers and food retailers. Our guest today is Dr. Steve Hahn, the commissioner of the FDA. Dr. Hahn, welcome back to the show.

>> Stephen Hahn: Anand, it's a pleasure to be back and talk about this topic, which, of course, is important to all Americans.

>> Anand Shah: So, Steve, the FDA has a large responsibility when it comes to the nation's food supply. Let's start with an overview of what FDA responsibilities are for food safety.

>> Stephen Hahn: Absolutely, Anand. As an agency, we regulate about 80 percent of all the food in the United States. This includes our fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, milk products, eggs, bottled water, fish, food additives, and even more. It doesn't include most meats or poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food safety is a shared responsibility between industries and the agencies that regulate it. During the pandemic, of course, FDA had worked to introduce temporary flexibility in regulations that allowed the country to maintain an ample food supply without sacrificing food safety. And thankfully, the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which we also refer to as FSMA, prepared both the industry and the government by shifting food safety from responding to problems to preventing them in the first place.

>> Anand Shah: So, a lot of our food is imported with many of FDA inspections stopped. Is imported food a particular focus right now?

>> Stephen Hahn: Fortunately, imported foods have a good safety net that utilizes technology and applies it to make thousands upon thousands of import decisions based upon health risks every day. Now, the percentage of food imported varies widely by commodity. But rest assured, the tools that FDA has in place have been working. These include inspections at the port of entry and our system called the PREDICT system, where we used a risk-based screening tool to focus on our examinations and sample collections on those products that we think have the highest risk. We've been conducting remote inspections of certain importers covered under FSMA. Additionally, we're conducting a pilot program that will leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to explore new ways to enhance FDA's review of imported foods at ports of entry and elsewhere. We want to make sure that they meet FDA's safety standards. We'll likely have to say — have more to say about this topic very soon as we prepare to announce the new era of smarter food safety blueprint.

>> Anand Shah: There are a lot of misconceptions out there right now during this pandemic, especially around safety. What can you tell us, Commissioner, about the food supply? Is it currently safe? And what has FDA done differently to assure the safety of the food supply during the pandemic?

>> Stephen Hahn: I can assure the American people that the American food supply is safe and secure. There is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. Anyone handling, preparing, and serving food at home should always follow safe food handling procedures such as commonsense things like washing hands and surfaces often. The CDC also recommends that if you're sick, you should stay home until you're better and no longer pose a risk to infect others.

>> Anand Shah: How about food supplies such as grocery stores, restaurants, manufacturing facilities? Should they be performing any special cleaning or sanitation procedures?

>> Stephen Hahn: Great question, Anand. FDA-regulated food manufacturers are required to maintain clean facilities, including, as appropriate, clean and sanitized food contact surfaces and to have food safety plans in place. Employers should consider more frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs at all food facilities. Restaurants and retail food establishments -- and I'm sure we're all seeing this now as we get out and about in our communities -- while regulated the state and local level, follow the FDA food code, which provides guidance for mitigating risk factors. All of this is an important part of strengthening our nation's food protection system. What about those who work in food facilities? Again, it's important that anyone who has symptoms of an acute respiratory illness stay at home and not go to work until they are free of fever or any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom altering medications. FDA has also collaborated closely with our federal partners on sector-specific guidance documents that are intended to help facilities in their employers implement effective mitigation strategies to protect workers' health.

>> Anand Shah: We know the virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. But is it possible that a person could get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then by touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes?

>> Stephen Hahn: Well, Anand, it is possible. However, this has not been shown to be the main way the virus spreads. Again, we remind folks to wash hands after handling food packaging, after removing food from the packaging, before preparing food for eating, and then before eating.

>> Anand Shah: Steve, as you and I know, many consumers have changed their food buying and eating habits due to COVID-19. Some of these changes came about because consumers were worried about getting the virus in a supermarket or because certain foods seemed to become unavailable. But from a food safety standpoint, is there any reason for anyone to change the way they buy and consume food?

>> Stephen Hahn: Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses that may make people ill through contaminated food, coronavirus is a virus that causes a lung or respiratory illness. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission. Regarding buying food, many people have stockpiled food like they would during a hurricane, which puts enormous pressure on the supply chain across the country. Food use in large scale establishments such as hotels, restaurants, stadiums, universities has declined, while the demand for food at grocery stores has increased. The FDA is working with food manufacturers and grocery stores to closely follow and monitor the human food supply chain for any shortages that might occur.

>> Anand Shah: So, some grocery store shelves may be temporarily short of certain items, mostly because customers are buying more than usual and not because there's less food.

>> Stephen Hahn: Absolutely correct, Anand. But manufacturers and retailers are working around the clock to replenish shelves.

>> Anand Shah: You've got a pet dog, Baci. And what about our animal friends?

>> Stephen Hahn: Very important topic from a lot of Americans. The FDA is also monitoring the availability of foods for livestock and pets. And as of now, there are no nationwide shortages of animal food. Same as with our food, the inventory of certain foods at the grocery store might be temporarily low before stores can restock.

>> Anand Shah: Does the increase in online shopping during the pandemic generate any concerns for FDA from a food safety standpoint?

>> Stephen Hahn: This is a pretty remarkable story that comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic. This quarter saw a growth in online food shopping and delivery of more than 500 percent compared to last year. Now, that's partly because most restaurants have been closed for indoor eating, usually a significant source of consumer spending. Another new era of smarter food safety focus identified in the blueprint is the safety of foods ordered online and delivered directly to consumers. We need to ensure that these foods are produced, packed, and transported safely. The need for best practices in this area has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

>> Anand Shah: Are there any precautions people should take when shopping for food?

>> Stephen Hahn: Well, for those who are not at high risk for developing COVID-19 illness, they should continue to get groceries and take the proper precautions while in and out of the store. This includes preparing a shopping list in advance and only buying one to two weeks' worth of groceries at a time, so as not to cause unnecessary demand and temporary shortages. People should continue wearing face masks while in the store, particularly when they can't social distance, should wipe down the handles of the shopping cart or basket, and washing reusable shopping bags before each use.

>> Anand Shah: And of course, everyone should practice social distancing while shopping, keeping at least six feet between them, other shoppers, and store employees? Do you agree?

>> Stephen Hahn: Yes, absolutely, Anand. And washing hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds when you return home and, again, after you put away your groceries.

>> Anand Shah: As you mentioned, many consumers have stockpiled some foods, maybe something that's a favorite. In case the pandemic persists, how long can someone keep certain foods in their freezers or cupboards before they may become unsafe?

>> Stephen Hahn: Well, consumers should always be mindful of the best buy or use by dates on their foods. Manufacturers typically put these on products for the quality of their products, not necessarily safety. Consumers can download the Food Keeper app and check many of the products they keep in their pantry or freezer for long-term storage and how long those products will be good for.

>> Anand Shah: Where can folks find the Food Keeper app?

>> Stephen Hahn: They can find it by going to foodsafety.gov, and then looking under the Keep Food Safe dropdown tab.

>> Anand Shah: What else can people do, Steve, during this pandemic to ensure that the foods they serve their families are safe?

>> Stephen Hahn: Anand, great question, because the rules aren't much different during this pandemic as they were before. We recommend everyone practices the key steps of food safety and to rely on credible, accurate sources such as the FDA, CDC, and USDA.

>> Anand Shah: What exactly are those key steps of food safety?

>> Stephen Hahn: Clean, separate, cook, and chill, meaning washing hands and surfaces often, separating raw meats from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly. We want all Americans to be safe now during this pandemic and in the future.

>> Anand Shah: Well, that wraps it up for today. I'd like to thank all of our food workers for all the work they've done to make sure that we've had a safe and robust supply of food during this pandemic. And thank you, Commissioner, for joining us today to talk about food safety.

>> Stephen Hahn: Thank you, Anand. It's always a pleasure.

>> Anand Shah: As always, we'll be providing you insight, in plain language, to help you understand the products that we regulate, the issues that we face, and the processes that we follow. We hope that you've enjoyed this episode of FDA Insight. Please subscribe on your favorite podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and others. Thanks for listening.

[end of transcript]

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