PMA virtual town hall

Progression of the pandemic regulations and what it means for the produce industry

This week’s PMA virtual town hall looked at the way the coronavirus has been progressing globally and what this means for the produce industry. Discussion topics covered China’s recent requirement of COVID-free certificates for food imports, the general situation in Latin America, and CDC guidelines for retailers to ensure the safety and health of both employees and customers.

COVID-free certificate requirement poses issues
The USDA and FDA recently came out with a joint statement to reiterate that the coronavirus is not foodborne, which was a response to media speculations that were brought on by China’s new coronavirus precautions. After the new outbreak in Beijing, officials are now requiring that food imported into China comes with a COVID-free certificate. The main countries affected by this regulation as Canada, Brazil, US, and Chile, as well as certain European countries.

There have been strong recommendations from federal health authorities in the affected countries that certain industries should not sign such COVID-free certificates. This is because when the product leaves the facility, it is out of the hands of the signee and the possibility exists that the product can come into contact with the virus. Some specific trade associations and industries have instead signed other assurances, such as ones that assure that they are complying with both food and worker safety requirements.

The reaction of exporters to this new requirement has been mixed. Some exporters have decided to stop exporting to China because they’re unable to comply with the regulation. There are also instances where China has backed down on the requirement, such as with Brazil, for example. In Chile, some exporters have asked Chinese officials to visit their facilities to prove that everything is up to the highest standards. The general government response of the countries most affected by the new requirement is to reiterate that COVID-19 is not foodborne, that it cannot be spread through food.

Fruit and vegetable exports have decreased
Many countries in Latin America have implemented agricultural guidelines to help keep industry workers safe. Outside of regulations from federal governments throughout the continent, the International Labor Organization has also drawn up general guidelines for the Caribbean and Latin America regions.

Governments are also taking care to ensure that the vulnerable sectors are getting extra attention. One of the panelists explained that the population sector of rural growers in Latin America are one of these vulnerable sectors. Many countries are giving this sector extra attention to protect them and ensure that they can continue their work, as they are essential in assuring the safety and stability of the food supply chain.

Overall in the past few months of the pandemic, the export of fruit and vegetables has decreased. This is because of the volatile demand everywhere, as well as additional challenges coming from border closures throughout the world. Now, the situation is becoming more stabilized and many countries are seeing that the overall demand for fruits and vegetables is increasing, which gives a lot of producers and exporters hope. There are also regions in Europe where there is a scarcity of specific produce items, meaning that there’s opportunities for growers in the industry to help fill these gaps.

Steps to keep the retail establishments as safe as possible
A representative of the CDC was also present at this week’s town hall and helped to outline the different recommendations for ensuring safety in stores. One point that was reiterated was that the CDC guidelines are not mandatory, though they are highly recommended. There were three main parts to the overall recommendation: (1) prevent and reduce transmission, (2) maintain a healthy work environment, and (3) maintain healthy business operations.

For the first step, preventing and reducing transmission, several recommendations were made to help achieve this. Employers should educate their employees on the spread and risks of the virus. They should provide access to soap and clean water, as well as hand drying materials and alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

For the second step, maintaining a healthy work environment, employers are encouraged to institute measures to increase and simplify social distancing both between employees, and between employees and customers. They should also consider providing remote shopping alternatives if they don’t already do so. Trying to control the flow of traffic in stores and ensuring that the maximum capacity isn’t exceeded is also recommended. It’s important to clean frequently touched surfaces often and provide disposable disinfectants for both employees and customers to use. Finally, make sure to pay attention to local, state, and federal guidelines.

For the third step, maintaining healthy business operations, one of the recommendations is to designate a specific person to address COVID-19 concerns. Implementing flexible work sites, limiting personnel travel, and implementing flexible sick leave policies and practices were also highly recommended. Employers should provide clear information on who to contact when an employee does get sick, and make sure that they let the other employees know that they could have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus while maintaining confidentiality. Finally, it’s important that a comprehensive COVID-19 plan is in place and that employers ensure that their workers fully understand the plan.

Next week: Crisis-proofing your business
Next week’s virtual town hall will focus on how to crisis-proof your business. From a more agile supply chain to safer food handling practices to consumer driven changes in the marketing and delivery of fresh produce and flower, this town hall will explore how the industry can be more crisis-proof. The focus will be on the lessons learned so far during the pandemic, and how those lessons can be applied in practice, as well as what is still being learned and how businesses can prepare for what is coming next.

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