NC State
Small Fruits

Extension Highlights: Food Safety and COVID-19

Interview with Dr. Chris Gunter, Professor and Vegetable and Food Safety Specialist, Department of Horticulture Sciences, NC State University.

By Emma Volk (Small Fruits Research Group, NC State University, Raleigh NC).

 

In a phone-interview with Dr. Chris Gunter, a professor and vegetable extension specialist at NCSU, we sought to understand food safety and to address special concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

Q1: What resources are available to farmers on the food safety portal?

There are a variety of resources available for both growers and consumers on the food safety portal. In terms of types of resources, we try to meet people where they are with level of knowledge. So we have webinars, printable resources, videos, and other materials that can accommodate all types of learning techniques. 

In terms of the content of those resources, we have information that ranges from the basic food safety requirements to the highest food safety practices – things that may not necessarily be written into law but are demanded by buyers and consumers.

 

Q2: What are the most important measures growers need to follow to keep themselves and their customers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Keeping employees and customers six feet apart and monitoring worker health is very important. If someone is sick, then they need to both stay home and report their illness from home. I think it’s also important for businesses to evaluate their sick leave policies to make sure that workers are more likely to report their illness.

In addition to practicing physical distancing and monitoring health, it’s also important that farmers disinfect when someone comes down with COVID-19 – not merely sanitize. Sanitizing practices kill most germs on a surface, but disinfecting is a deeper level of cleaning that is needed when someone becomes ill. And if customers are coming onto the farm, then farmers need to think about surfaces that will be touched often and develop a system to clean those surfaces more often. The food safety portal has resources to help people understand how to properly clean surfaces.

 

Sanitizing practices kill most germs on a surface, but disinfecting is a deeper level of cleaning that is needed when someone becomes ill”

 

Q3: Have you noticed that farmers are finding it difficult to implement food safety measures or gain access to PPE right now? 

A lot of the farmers I have talked to – particularly the small farmers – struggle to access things like gloves, masks, and food-grade chlorine because they get those materials from big box retail stores. What I’ve suggested to them is partnering with local restaurants. Restaurants who order paper towels, sanitizers, gloves, toilet paper, or masks often receive those items through different supply chains that don’t supply big box stores, so they aren’t experiencing shortages like Walmart or Costco are. The next time a restaurant puts in an order to a supply company like, a farmer could ask the restaurant to order an extra box or two of gloves and pay the restaurant directly for those  materials.

 

Q4: Is there any evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food?

According to the CDC, food is not a primary vector of the disease. Currently, research points to food transmission for the disease as being unlikely. But it’s important to remember that this is a novel, or new, virus, so its biology may be different from other viruses that exist within the coronavirus family. The scientific community is developing science and research to understand it completely, so more information will continue to come out as time progresses.

 

Q5: What kinds of resources do you hope to develop moving forward?

We hope to start a series of webinars focused on pre- and post-harvest cleaning and sanitation. We also hope to cover the basics like compliance with produce food safety rules and regulations as well as the food audit process. These are things to think about during this particular time, but they are also useful resources for farmers whether or not there’s a pandemic.

 

If you are interested in learning more about food safety, or food safety as it relates to COVID-19, please check out NC State Extension’s food safety portal. If you are a grower, please also see NC State Extension’s COVID-19 Resources for Fruit and Vegetable Growers.

 


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