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Information for fruit and vegetable producers during the COVID-19 pandemic: what we know

Updated 4/10/20

Author Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator, on-farm food safety

As our state and the nation responds to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working with fruit and vegetable growers and other food producers to answer questions about the coronavirus that causes the disease.  Here are some things to know and sources of current and credible information about the pandemic as it relates to food and food production. 

You can find up-to-date information about the current outbreak at the CDC situation page here. 

Updated 4/10/20
Looking for signs related to COVID-19 to hang at the farm? Check out these great CDC signs in multiple languages.

Preparing for sick agricultural workers and COVID-19: new factsheet from Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Guide for Farmers’ Markets and Vendors: new factsheet from Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Updated 3/25/20 The FDA has released updated information on the COVID-19 epidemic and coronavirus for food producers on their extensive FAQ page.

The United Fresh recommended protocols for the food industry when an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

1. What is coronavirus? 

From the FDA: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. There are many types of human coronaviruses, including some that commonly cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses. COVID-19 is a new disease, caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans. This is not a foodborne illness that causes gastrointestinal illness like norovirus. It is a respiratory illness and the primary symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. 

2. Can the virus be transmitted via food? 

Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. Because of its low survival rate on surfaces, there is thought to be little evidence of transmission via food surfaces, packaging, cardboard, plastic etc. Research recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine states that coronavirus is thought to persist on surfaces like plastic and metal for up to 3 days, cardboard up to 24 hours, and in the air for up to 3 hours. The virus is enveloped in a lipid envelope, and is not stable or persistent in the environment, like norovirus or other foodborne pathogens. Again, at this time the primary transmission route is person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets. That is not to say that food or food packaging could never transmit the virus, but it is not the primary transmission route. 

The CDC has an updated FAQ page including information about how the virus spreads, including the low survivability on surfaces and the lack of evidence of spread via food or food packaging.

3. What steps can we take on the farm to minimize spread of the virus?

Social distancing is very important to reduce the contact between people to slow the spread of the disease, especially in the early days of the outbreak. This applies to workers on the farm, farmers' markets and CSA pick up sites. Follow guidelines from the MDH and CDC relating to social distancing.

Wash your hands! Train all employees and visitors to wash their hands regularly and make handwashing easy by putting handwashing stands at key locations around the farm, such as in the field, near restrooms and near packing facilities. Handwashing is the most important step you can take to reduce the transmission of diseases caused by viruses such as coronavirus. Workers should wash hands before harvesting or washing produce, after using the restroom, after eating and before putting on gloves.

A note on gloves: gloves are not a replacement for handwashing, and gloves are no better than bare hands if you don’t change them as often as you would wash your hands. Both will be contaminated if you cough or sneeze into them, or touch a surface with viral particles. Always wash your hands well before putting on gloves, and change them frequently, like between tasks and if they get dirty or torn.

See the How to Build a Low-Cost Handwashing Station factsheet for instructions on building a low - cost, portable handwashing stand. Train employees to wash thoroughly. Wash for 20 seconds with soap and water and then dry with a single-use towel. The water does not need to be hot (but it is a lot more pleasant in the early spring).

Don’t let sick workers, volunteers or visitors near your produce. All farms and farmers' markets should have an illness policy for the operation. A policy should state that no one with a fever, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice or other symptoms of illness should be near the produce. Symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea are not likely signs of COVID-19 illness, but it is still important to exclude all sick workers or volunteers, since these other symptoms might indicate other illnesses that could spread to your food or to other workers. Workers must be trained on these policies and how to recognize these symptoms. For a summary of COVID-19 specific symptoms, refer to the CDC.

Use signs Communicate your worker and volunteer policies via clear signage around the farm. The signs should indicate where the handwashing stations are, where the restrooms are, and a reminder to not work when you are sick. Email customers who might be picking up at CSA drop sites to remind them of your policies. Signs at pick-up sites can indicate these policies as well. 

Need sample signs for your farm? See these free PDF signs from the UMASH Agritourism program.

Clean and sanitize surfaces, especially those touched frequently 
While the primary transmission of the virus occurs between people, a sick worker can transfer viral particles to equipment, door handles, tools or other surfaces, so it is important to clean and sanitize these surfaces regularly.  Thorough cleaning and sanitizing regimen includes rinsing visible dirt from a surface, cleaning with detergent and water, rinsing, and then sanitizing with an approved sanitizing agent. Refer to this factsheet Cleaning and Sanitizing Food Contact Surfaces from UMN Extension for more information.

Again, the primary mode of transmission of this disease is person-to-person through respiratory droplets. But thorough cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces, proper handwashing and social distancing will help to reduce the transmission of the disease in the event it is brought onto the farm by a worker or volunteer and will reduce the potential for the spread via contaminated surfaces. These principles also simultaneously reduce the potential for spreading fecal-oral pathogens that cause foodborne illness such as E coli, Salmonella and norovirus.

This article has important information about how different chemicals are labeled and tested for effectiveness against the virus.

The CDC recommends that a solution made with 5 tablespoons of bleach in a gallon of water will be effective against coronavirus, or 4 teaspoons per quart.

What other sanitizers are approved for use on coronavirus? 
  • The EPA has compiled this list of sanitizers that are approved for use against coronavirus
  • The American Chemistry Council's (ACC) Center for Biocide Chemistries (CBC) has compiled a list of products that have been pre-approved by the EPA for use against emerging enveloped viral pathogens
Develop a cleaning and sanitizing SOP and log sheet to record these actions. This SOP should include what is cleaned, how to clean it, what materials to use, and where to record the cleaning.

4. What about Farmers Markets and Delivery of Produce?

The Minnesota Department of Health recently released a summary of best practices for food handlers relating to to the pick up and delivery of food. Many farmers' markets are moving toward innovative scheduled pick-up solutions that reduce human contact. Implementing handwashing stations at farmers' markets and following social distancing guidelines will help minimize the spread of the virus.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension created this factsheet for farmers' markets and COVID-19.

Other resources related to food production and COVID-19 for farmers

Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University Up-to-date compilation of information and guidance to the food industry relating to COVID-19, including many published scientific articles

Considerations for Fruit and Vegetable Growers Related to Coronavirus & COVID-19 (University of Vermont). Excellent summary of the steps producers and growers can take related to COVID-19.

COVID-19 and Food Safety (North Carolina State University)  Food safety portal housing many factsheets and other informational resources with the current science related to COVID-19.

EPA FAQ on questions related to disinfectants on SARS-COV-2

-Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator On- Farm Food Safety

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