Food Safety and the Coronavirus: What You Need to Know

The Food Innovation Center's Donna Schaffner tackles whether Covid-19 can be transmitted through food, how the pandemic is affecting food systems and how business can bounce back.

Donna Schaffner, associate director of Food Safety and Training at the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University. Photo courtesy of the FIC

Food scientist Donna Schaffner knows a lot about what’s going on in the food industry in the best of times. These times are not that. And that might be all the more reason to check in with the associate director of Food Safety, Quality Assurance, and Training at the Food Innovation Center (FIC) at Rutgers University. The center acts as both a training grounds for established businesses and as an incubator for young food businesses, “from concept to commercialization.”

Over the course of her career, Schaffner herself has acted as both teacher and consultant for the food processing industry. As Covid-19 crested both in reality and public awareness, she’s had a unique viewpoint, observing both industry pros and young start-ups responding to a drastic shifts in consumer demand, with new restrictions.

We caught up with Schaffner, who’s been teaching virtual food safety training classes during the pandemic, to ask if Covid-19 can be transmitted through food, how the food processing industry that’s already seen multiple closures can pivot to accommodate social distancing, and whether young food businesses should lay low in an era where we’re all starving for comfort foods and staples.

TH: You’re a food scientist and a consultant within the industry, but you also teach. What is it like straddling those two worlds?
DS: I’m not like a professor who teaches the same course for years and never changes the curriculum. Every time I teach a class, I add new material into it—the latest recalls, what’s going on in the industry, who’s had an audit. But through the years, the basic principles of food safety haven’t changed. The ways they’re interpreted, the tools we use, the testing kits—those have all changed tremendously.

TH: I’d have to imagine things are changing somewhat during the current era?
DS: The economy is changing and businesses are facing changes, but food safety principles are the same. We’ve had Norovirus, Hepatitis A—there are viruses that have spread through food, so the food industry already takes care of that. Having another virus doesn’t change anything about food safety.

TH: Is there a risk of Covid-19 transmission through food?
DS: Transmission of the coronavirus through food has not been demonstrated at this point. It’s person-to-person. That’s our current understanding. And the things the food industry and processing industries were already doing as far as cleaning and sanitizing, those things would already remove the virus. The only thing that’s changed is that community transmission means employees working in plants become ill.

TH: And that’s what happened when the Smithfield pork processing plant closed?
DS: Yes. The food industry, like everything else, is going to be forever changed. Social distancing needs to be done to prevent the spread of illness, but it’s very difficult to do with the layout they had in the processing plants.

TH: How is the set-up of processing plants not conducive to social distancing?
DS: They’re in a very wet, humid environment, so the spread of the virus through inhaled particles can happen more easily. And they’re typically very close—not six feet apart. It was an environment that made it easy for the virus to pass through the air, from person to person. The plants will have to adjust a lot. A lot of assembly-line type of work, with people standing close together, will have to change going forward. These places were built to be efficient. They were set up with people close together.

TH: Can the industry pivot?
DS: Absolutely. Most of the people who were out because they were ill will come back. They’ll stagger shifts and move tables farther apart, in warmer weather let people outside for lunch. The new normal for our country is going to be that this virus is here. It’s the same way people get used to the seasonal flu. This is going to be part of life going forward.

TH: Should we brace for shortages in food supply?
DS: This is a temporary thing. The numbers of people who became ill at a place like Smithfield, they will get over it and go back to work. There are plenty of animals being raised right now. The bottleneck is in the processing plant, but that will come back. In fact a couple of the major plants that had been shut down, including Smithfield, are reopening. It may be reduced capacities for a short while but the meat supply is not gone. This is just a temporary disruption.

TH: Is it a bad time to be a young food business?
DS: We get a lot of questions about that. When people started eating at home and grabbing all the food they could from the grocery store, they were tending to buy comfort food and the basic things. The demand for higher-priced specialty foods dropped off. A lot of the big corporations changed what they were making, stopped producing short-run specialty products and switched to making basic items. This affected people who were launching new products. Basically, this is not the time to do it.

TH: Why are young food businesses at such risk?
DS: Before coronavirus, Americans were buying all sorts of specialty things. There was always a desire for something new, something different. Price wasn’t so much of an issue. Now we have millions of Americans out of work. If you’re out of work and you’re worried about feeding your family, you’re not going to buy specialty stuff. There’s definitely a ripple effect for the whole food industry, but especially for entrepreneurs and start-ups, mostly the ones trying to introduce higher-priced specialty items. It’s just not the best time to introduce them. For most, it’s a matter of can they wait this out?

TH: What about the future of the FIC itself?
DS: We are part of a university. Universities in general are in financial difficulties. The FIC will be faced with a lot of changes due to finances. We’re a business, just like the businesses we incubate. We’re a part of the university that also has to bring in money, so we’re subject to the same market forces as any other business. We plan to continue to be open as long as we can. We’re absolutely closed as far as producing food because the university is closed. We will start having people come back in, people who were starting small businesses. We are in the process of reopening that part of our business as soon as the governor allows. That’s the plan—to start coming back.

The Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University is still running, with Schaffner and staff conducting courses on Food Safety virtually (their “Food Business Basics” workshop is temporarily postponed).

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