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Handling COVID-19 on produce farms and in packinghouses

By for CAES News

While there is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus is a food safety concern, it is a worker health concern as it spreads via close person-to-person contact or by contact with contaminated surfaces.

Food does not appear to be a likely cause of COVID-19 transmission, but many of the same practices used to prevent foodborne illness on foods should be used to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 contamination on fresh produce and the risk of COVID-19 spreading among workers.

Producers should educate workers on COVID-19 symptoms, how it spreads and how to reduce the spread of the disease.

The following are guidelines from University of Georgia Cooperative Extension to share with employees:

  • Instruct workers to stay home if they are sick (coughing, sore throat, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.).
  • Reassure employees that they will not be punished for missing work due to illness.
  • Have a plan in place and communicate in advance how you will address workers who do not want to miss a paycheck (paid sick leave, etc.).
  • All employees must wash their hands frequently throughout the day with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This includes when employees arrive to work, before they handle food, after breaks or after using the restroom, etc.

Disinfecting tools, equipment and surfaces

During COVID-19, or any other outbreak situation, increase routine cleaning and disinfecting frequency to protect the health of workers. Disinfecting routines also need to include administrative offices, field trucks and break areas that are not generally included in day-to-day cleaning.

Cleaning and disinfecting are two separate steps and should be done in order. Cleaning removes dirt and soil and often requires the use of a soap/detergent and water. Disinfecting uses a chemical to inactivate viruses on the surface.

Following are guidelines for disinfecting items and surfaces:

  • Clean and disinfect shared tools between uses by different employees.
  • Use the CDC’s recommended use of disinfectants on the EPA list found at go.ncsu.edu/epacovid-19. (Note: this list is based on current data, but compounds have not been validated for inactivation of the virus causing COVID-19.)
  • Bleach may be used to disinfect surfaces, but the concentration is higher for COVID-19 than for everyday sanitation: five tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water.
  • Clean harvest baskets, bags, aprons, knives, etc. after each use. Wash fabrics with a detergent in hot water and apply a disinfectant to nonporous surfaces. See CDC guidelines on laundry at go.ncsu.edu/cdclaundry.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces — including door handles, steering wheels, keyboards, touch screens, etc. — throughout the day.

Hygiene and personal protective equipment

  • Hand sanitizing stations should supplement but not replace handwashing. Consider having sanitizer available for harvest or packing crews.
  • Discourage employees from sharing phones, tools, utensils, vehicles, etc.
  • Provide single-use gloves to all workers handling food. Gloves should be changed when contaminated (e.g. when hands touch skin or the ground). When gloves may interfere with a worker’s ability to do their assigned task (e.g. harvesting, applying stickers, etc.), handwashing or hand sanitizer should occur frequently.
  • Some workers may prefer to wear masks while working in close proximity with others. Masks should be allowed but not required, and workers should be instructed on how to wear them properly to prevent illness or injury.

Distancing and cohort monitoring

Instruct workers to keep six feet away from each other. Limit one employee per vehicle at a time, and instruct drivers to disinfect frequently touched surfaces within the vehicle before their shift ends.

When physical distancing is not an option, consider dividing workers into cohorts that only work with members within that cohort for the duration of the outbreak. For example, divide your packing crew into two groups that only show up for their group’s designated shift. Have the first shift clean and sanitize their work areas and equipment at the end of their shift and give a buffer of 15 to 30 minutes between the end of the first shift and beginning of the next shift to ensure employees are not in contact with each other during shift changes.

Smaller operations may want to consider having designated harvest and packing crews, the members of which never cross paths during the work day. Employees in the same household should be assigned to the same crew or cohort. Cohorting reduces the risk of losing the entire workforce, which could happen if an employee who works at the same time as all of the other employees tests positive for COVID-19.

For more information on COVID-19, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov. For more resources on COVID-19 from UGA Extension, visit www.extension.uga.edu/emergencies

Laural Dunn is an assistant professor in the UGA Department of Food Science & Technology.
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