March 24, 2020

FDA Continues to Respond to Food Industry COVID-19 Concerns: Employee Testing, Social Distancing, Sanitizer Alternatives and Masks

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on March 23 to include additional recommendations for the food industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. FDA addressed four particular situations: employee testing, social distancing, use of quaternary ammonium as hand sanitizer and use of masks in food retail establishments.

Employees With Positive COVID-19 Testing

If a food industry employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of possible exposure, maintain employee confidentiality, and follow the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). FDA again emphasized that all aspects of the food supply chain are considered critical infrastructure and it is therefore vital that they continue to operate. To reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission of COVID-19, food production facilities should focus on cleaning and sanitization protocols and follow the requirements set by local and state health departments, which may vary depending on the amount of community spread of COVID-19 in the area. Employers should also consult the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance on how to prepare workplaces for COVID-19, including information on how a COVID-19 outbreak could affect workplaces and steps all employers can take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).

Social Distancing in Food Production/Processing and Food Retail Establishments

FDA addressed the issue of social distancing in facilities where employees typically work in close quarters, such as food production/processing facilities and food retail establishments. FDA reiterated CDC guidance that individuals maintain at least six feet from other persons. However, FDA noted that employee-to-employee transmission is dependent not only on distance, but also on the duration of exposure and employee hygiene practices. In fact, FDA emphasized that simply adhering to social distancing without focusing on hygiene practices may not prevent the spread of COVID-19. Therefore, FDA recommended that employers focus on hygiene and sanitization practices in addition to maintaining social distancing to the fullest extent practicable.

Use of Quaternary Ammonium Sanitizers

In response to suggested alternatives to hand sanitizers, FDA highlighted the lack of readily available alcohol-based hand sanitizers. However, FDA emphasized its recent temporary guidance to expand the compounding and preparation of alcohol-based hand sanitizers during this public health emergency. FDA reiterated that hand sanitizers are not intended to replace handwashing in food production and food retail establishments. Therefore, FDA recommended that alcohol-based hand sanitizer be used in addition to or in combination with proper handwashing with soap and water. FDA further advised against the use of quaternary ammonium stations and sprays because those products are intended for use on surfaces, not human skin, and FDA is aware of adverse event reports from consumers using them as hand sanitizer replacements.

Use of Masks in Food Retail Establishments

FDA also addressed a question regarding the use of masks for employees in the food retail setting, e.g., cashiers, grocery baggers and cleaning personnel. In response, FDA emphasized CDC guidance that people who are well not wear a facemask in order to protect themselves from COVID-19. FDA reiterated that individuals should wear masks only when recommended by a health care professional. FDA recommends that facemasks should be used only by individuals who have COVID-19 in order to prevent the transmission to others. Everyone should continue to follow CDC’s everyday recommendations to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

Earlier FAQ addressed by FDA include the safety of the U.S. food supply, cleaning facilities and equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the status of workers in the human and animal food and feed sector as essential critical infrastructure workforce. All questions and answers can be found on FDA’s Food Safety and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) page.

As the number of cases around the world grows, Faegre Drinker’s Coronavirus Resource Center is available to help you understand and assess the legal, regulatory and commercial implications of COVID-19.

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