The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is under pressure over concerns about food safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the coronavirus outbreak has spread across the United States, food product recalls have nearly vanished from headlines. This is causing concern that food safety is falling to the wayside as concerns about coronavirus continue to grow.
From February to April 2020, there were only three product recalls issued by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there were between three and five food recalls per month. Some food safety experts are curious about the sudden gap in recalls. A Rutgers University professor of food microbiology says,
“I do think that it is unusual that there were no recalls during that time frame. COVID-19 has been a distraction.”
But is the distraction compromising food safety in the U.S.?
Food Safety Concerns Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
With coronavirus affecting almost every aspect of daily life, it is not surprising that resources are being focused on pandemic response, rather than general oversight. The USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are not inspecting food processors and distributors as regularly as usual. The FDA is primarily focused on vaccines, treatment and supporting the healthcare industry.
In addition to changes in oversight, there is also the issue of supply and demand. Many food processing plants are working on limited staff, or are even being shut down due to the coronavirus. Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods are both experiencing a shortage of workforce, which is affecting their operations. Several meat processing plants are closed, and that is affecting the supply of meat.
Food safety experts agree that the coronavirus is making it harder for the USDA and FDA to continue normal inspections and oversight. This is especially true at facilities currently battling an outbreak. Shortages of workers and less inspections has many consumers concerned about how safe their food is. One food safety legal professional says,
“On the one hand, it could be that there are fewer reports of product withdrawals or recalls because industry members are doing a better job of safely processing the food they put out in the marketplace. On the other hand, a reduction in reported recalls may be the product of government budget cuts and regulation rollbacks that have resulted in fewer food facility inspections, the retrenchment of government oversight and our reliance on industry to self-police.”
Other food safety experts say that consumers should not worry too much about the lack of recalls or the decrease in product oversight. The number of recalls at any given time is variable.
What About Foodborne Illnesses?
Experts are saying that less recalls may not indicate that our food is less safe. But there is another issue that must be a consideration. That issue is foodborne illness. Right now, doctors and hospitals are overwhelmed. Those that are not are operating on a very tight schedule. If someone in your household develops a foodborne illness like E. coli or salmonella, what will you do?
Food safety experts say they believe most people will ride out the illness without getting medical attention. Not only are consumers wary of going to a doctor’s office right now, but many doctors are not doing laboratory tests right now except for coronavirus tests. What that means for consumers is that they will have to be especially diligent in monitoring anyone with a foodborne illness.
While most foodborne illnesses are easy to treat, some can develop into a more severe illness or present complications that can be dangerous. For example, many foodborne illnesses can lead to dehydration without treatment in a timely manner. More specifically:
- E. coli – Complications of E. coli include meningitis, sepsis, pneumonia and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
- Salmonella – Complications of salmonella include dehydration, reactive arthritis and bacteremia (a bloodstream infection).
- Listeria – Listeria infection (listeriosis) may cause complications like septicemia, listeria meningitis, miscarriage or stillbirth.
- Norovirus – Norovirus may cause severe dehydration and malnutrition.
It is important that anyone with symptoms of a foodborne illness carefully monitor their symptoms. Call your doctor or schedule a telehealth appointment if you have questions or concerns.
Food Safety Advice for Consumers
So what can you do as a consumer to make sure that the food you serve your family is safe? At Bad Food Recall, we offer the following food safety and hygiene tips:
- Practice good hygiene when you are shopping for groceries.
- Wash your hands before and after handling food products – even those in packages.
- Wash produce thoroughly before preparing or eating. You should even was the skins of fruit or vegetables, even if you don’t eat it.
- Keep fresh food separate from raw meat, poultry or seafood.
- Clean and disinfect your kitchen and refrigerator regularly.
- Do not use cleaner or disinfectant on your food products. These chemicals are not safe for human ingestion.
- Repackage dry goods (cereal, rice, beans, etc.) into plastic bags or containers. Recycle or discard the original packaging outside your home.
- Avoid sharing utensils or straws with other people.
- If someone in your home is sick, that person should not prepare food for others.
Ultimately, food safety during the coronavirus pandemic boils down to good common sense and good hygiene practices. Taking a little bit more time to disinfect your kitchen, wash and properly prepare food can help you avoid foodborne illness.