State and federal officials say food poses no threat for transmitting the coronavirus, but Central Coast growers are taking steps to protect their workers from contracting the disease from each other as planting and harvesting continues.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all said no evidence exists that COVID-19 can be contracted from foods.
Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response for the FDA, said SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a respiratory illness virus, unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that make people ill through contaminated food.
He said the current strain of the coronavirus is thought to spread mainly from person to person.
“So, let me assure you first that the U.S. food supply remains safe for both people and animals,” Yiannas said. “There is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”
He said the FDA does not anticipate any food products will need to be recalled or withdrawn from the market for reasons related to the coronavirus, “even if a person who works in a human or animal food facility … is confirmed to be positive for the COVID-19 virus.”
Central Coast growers haven’t heard any consumers question the safety of the crops they’re growing and harvesting, but the growers are concerned about the safety of their workers.
Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, which represents 170 shippers, labor contractors and other agribusiness companies, said federal orders on the coronavirus have identified agriculture and food production as “critical infrastructure."
“There continues to be an abundance of crops being gown,” she said. “Retail [purchasing] has remained strong. But there is some ongoing concern [among growers] about their ability to harvest.”
Wineman said growers and food packagers have been taking extra steps to safeguard workers’ health, and her organization has been helping by distributing information about the virus and halting its spread.
It also has been posting links to information on its website.
“Fortunately, a lot of measures are already in place through our food safety laws,” Wineman said. “But growers are taking extra steps and precautions.
"Every situation is different, depending on what the facilities and crops are," she said. “But there are opportunities for additional cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing when feasible and staggering their work crews.
“It really does depend on the crop being harvested and the individual situation.”
Wineman said workers are constantly being advised to be aware of what surfaces they are touching and to wash their hands frequently.
Those who appear to be sick are also being sent home immediately.
A worker in a field east of Santa Maria, who identified himself only as Raul, said his boss has been telling workers "over and over" to stay six feet apart and wash their hands a lot in hot water.
“He is also giving us the hand [sanitizer] every day when we come to work and asking us to use it before we work,” Raul said. “He asks every day if we feel OK, if we are sick, if our families are sick. If anyone says yes, he sends them home.”
He added, “He also tells us not to ride to work together unless we have to. We should drive our own cars. But that costs us more.”
Raul said he worries a little about getting COVID-19, but he worries more about his family being hungry and making enough money to feed them, especially since his four children are not in school and are home all day every day.
“I have to keep working,” he said. “I can’t get sick. I can’t go home. I have to wash [my] hands and stay far back from people.”
Wineman said she hasn’t heard anybody express concern about food safety, and she hasn’t heard about any shortages of any fresh fruits and vegetables like there have been for toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, milk, canned goods and frozen foods.
Her advice to the public: “I would emphasize it’s important to continue to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s part of staying healthy.”
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