It’s just over two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. While many of us have adjusted to living in a pandemic world, it’s important that, as we try to get “back to normal,” we take a critical look at what we have experienced, how our world has changed and how to prepare ourselves for the next health crisis.
COVID-19 was a new dilemma for many food safety professionals. Yes, we’ve dealt with endemic pathogens and widespread biological threats to crops and livestock, but a prolific respiratory virus was a different story all together.
Few of us want to talk about additional crisis situations and plan for them if we don’t have to, right? It isn’t pleasant to think about all the things that could go wrong and spend time strategizing for a potential catastrophe. However, we have seen the devastating impacts of a disastrous reaction during a crisis instead of a thoughtful, planned response. Considering the hard-learned lessons of the past two years, I propose that we don’t move too quickly into functioning as if the pandemic is over, and instead, take time to capture what we’ve learned and apply it to broader crisis management plans for our food environments.
For one, we should continue to plan for seasons of strain due to respiratory viruses. We don’t know when COVID-19 will be endemic so it is prudent to continue to refine plans surrounding employee health policies, public health interventions and maintaining high food safety standards with limited resources and supply chain disruptions. What SOPs and policies can you edit in advance? What systems were working well when it was suspected that SARS-CoV-2 was spread through surfaces? These plans may also come in handy if the next pathogen of concern in food environments is not transmitted through food. Continue conversations with colleagues and specialists to collaborate and learn from their experiences.
As we know, not all crisis management plans are based on pathogenic threats. Some plans are designed for the changes in available resources. In addition to plans for power outages and lack of potable water, we need to leverage what we have learned during the pandemic to plan for how best to manage supply chain disruptions or labor constraints that impact typical food safety operations such as cleaning and sanitation. What if the non-pathogenic crisis is a public health concern like a natural disaster, pest infestation or invasive species? Do you have crisis intervention and communication learnings that can apply in those scenarios? What experts in other disciplines can you call on as you consider these plans?
What if a crisis is more localized and intentional? Food defense is often robust upstream, but in many situations, less comprehensive in retail settings. What areas of vulnerability still exist, and what threats or concerns should you be prepared for? Consider also that social media has influenced people to contaminate food without nefarious intent, such as the recent trend for people to open ice cream containers to lick the contents. Think through how you can leverage the systems you already have in place to warn and protect against threats.
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