For Joseph Levitt, the sense of urgency surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) reminded him a lot of the post-9/11 period when he was director for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in the US Food and Drug Administration.
This time, however, the impact on the food industry is significantly different than what he had experienced in the past.
“This one in many ways is worse because it affects personal safety and worker safety,” said Mr. Levitt, partner with Hogan Lovells, a Washington, DC, firm that serves as legal counsel to SNAC International. “The one saving grace is it does not present a food safety risk, and we should all be grateful for that.”
During a recent webcast to its clients, which include a myriad of the nation’s top food industry associations, attorneys for Hogan Lovells provided guidance and information on the top questions that they’re receiving since the nation declared a national emergency.
The inquiries ranged from how to operate during “stay-at-home” decrees and who can take the temperatures of employees to how to mitigate risks for employees and to how to respond when an employee tests positive, or shows symptoms of the virus.
While the FDA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other government agencies are providing a host of guidance on their websites, the ultimate answers to many questions involve assessing the facts of each case individually and often in conjunction with local or state jurisdictions.
“I wish there was a one-size-fits-all approach,” noted Martin Hahn, a partner with the firm. “Unfortunately, that’s just not the way things are working in this COVID-19 universe.”
Take the issue of what to do when an employee tests positive for the virus. In many cases, companies will be working with suspected — not confirmed — cases of infection from the virus because test kits are still not readily available for all cases. As a result, some jurisdictions may require companies to report both confirmed positives and suspected cases.
“This is a when, not if, consideration, and we strongly urge everyone to plan for what they will do when that happens to continue operations,” said Maile Gradison Hermida, partner.
She suggested such key steps as informing fellow employees of an ill worker and possible exposure in the workplace. Additionally, companies need to exercise caution concerning the confidentiality of the ill employee.
Moreover, companies should contact and follow local and state guidelines on any quarantine protocols for workers, especially those who had close contact — defined as working within 6 feet — with the ill employee for a prolonged period of time.
On the production floor, food manufacturers should clean all surfaces, not only food contact ones, where the ill employee worked as well as where they may have visited, such as breakrooms and restrooms. Ms. Gradison Hermida recommended using US Environmental Protection Agency sanitizers found on the agency’s website.
“FDA has said very clearly that no recall or market action is necessary,” Ms. Gradison Hermida observed. “There is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. That’s why FDA does not anticipate that food would have to be recalled or withdrawn because of an employee who tests positive. FDA’s emphasis is that the primary responsibility is on the facility to take appropriate action to protect other workers and people who may have come in contact with the ill employee.”
Elizabeth Fawell, partner, pointed out the decision to shut down a facility following a COVID-19 positive also requires a case-by-case assessment in conjunction with the local health department.
She suggested conducting a health hazard evaluation, including determining whether affected employees work in an office or in the plant, where they had access and what other workers had contact with them while maintaining confidentiality as a part of a company’s human relations policy.
The FDA advises following local or state guidelines to determine whether 14-day quarantines are needed for any personnel who came in contact with the ill person.
The law firm also addressed a number of specific questions. Ms. Gradison Hermida, for instance, noted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance that it is not a violation of the American with Disabilities Act to check employees’ temperatures prior to entering the workplace, but she urged companies to double check with the EEOC or local officials to determine how to do it within proper guidelines.
The firm also addressed situations where jurisdictions are locked down or other travel restrictions are imposed. Brian Eyink, counsel with the firm, noted that a company letter confirming that employees, contractors or carriers who work for the company may travel to and from the facility or deliver food or materials to a plant may be helpful.
Mr. Eyink recommended following templates provided by legal counsel. In general, he said, food and agriculture companies are exempt from travel restrictions because they’re considered part of the “critical infrastructure” that needs to remain in operation during a national emergency.
Because of the patchwork of local and state regulations, however, such letters are not a guarantee that travel will be allowed in all cases and may vary by location or state restrictions.
In the end, Mr. Hahn offered some non-legal words of encouragement.
“Yes, it’s going to be challenging,” he said. “It’s going to be unprecedented, but we are going to get through this, and we’re all going to be better because of this.”