ASTA Coronavirus Information & Resources

ASTA formed a coronavirus task force of our members to consolidate and share information about the Coronavirus (COVID-19), including updates from government agencies, research, company statements, employee training resources, supply chain issues, etc. The situation continues to change rapidly and ASTA’s Coronavirus task force will continue to discuss the situation and make any new information available to our members as it develops.

FAQs Regarding Coronavirus and Food

Q: How does COVID-19 spread?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that COVID-19  can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

The WHO continues to stress that transmission of COVID-19 by the food industry is highly unlikely. The entire food industry from initial suppliers to finished food products should continue to be essential service providers as maintaining movement on the food chain is critical. Additionally, the WHO continues to stress that following good food hygiene practices and hand-washing are critical to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The CDC states that it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet), or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Q: Can the coronavirus be transmitted via food or food packaging?
According to the CDC, the risk of spreading the virus from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures is low. Likewise, the FDA has stated that it is “not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging.”  The FDA created a COVID-19 website that includes an FDA Q&A and additional information for food manufacturers.

The Food Marketing Institute has additional information on the coronavirus, including information from the CDC that  products and packages shipped to the U.S. from China pose a very low risk of spreading the virus. Coronavirus is most likely to be spread via respiratory droplets.

Q: Is there ongoing research about COVID-19?
The WHO is assessing ongoing research on the ways COVID-19 is spread and will continue to share updated findings. The U.S. Congress passed an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to help the states, cities and tribes with COVID-19 response. Congress has also ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to use $3.1 billion of its quota on medical supplies, vaccine-making and ensuring U.S. health systems are up to the task of addressing COVID-19.

Overview of Governmental Actions 

Q: Are there any travel restrictions for COVID-19 currently in place?The President of the United States has placed a ban on travel from the European Union.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued instructions for all flights from China and all passengers who have traveled to China in February 2020. For the latest in travel advisories, the State Department website provides the most updated travel advisories related to COVID-19 for each country that may be subject to a travel advisory. The CDC also provides a COVID-19 specific travel advisory update.

Q: Are there any restrictions on the import of food products into the United States?
The borders of the United States continue to be open for the import of goods, including food products. On March 18, President Trump tweeted that the U.S and Canada will close their border by mutual consent, and Canada closed its borders to curb the spread of COVID-19. There are exceptions to the closures including commercial traffic and truck shipping. On March 20, President Trump announced that the U.S. and Mexico have agreed to temporarily close the border to nonessential travel to curb the spread of the coronavirus, although bilateral trade and transportation of goods is expected to continue.

Q: What impact could governmental responses including state and local “shelter in place” orders, and other restrictions have on the food industry?
The food industry is deemed to be a part of our nation’s “critical infrastructure” by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS specifically states in its guidance that “food manufacturer employees and their supplier employees—to include those employed in food ingredient production and processing facilities” are part of the critical infrastructure. FDA states on its website that:”Promoting the ability of our workers within the food and agriculture industry to continue to work during periods of community restrictions, social distances, and closure orders, among others, is crucial to community continuity and community resilience.”

The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America issued by the White House on March 16, 2020 went further than exempting such critical businesses, stating that those who work in a critical infrastructure industry (including the food industry), “have a special responsibility” to maintain normal work schedules.  The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within DHS subsequently issued Guidance, which identifies essential critical infrastructure workers and sectors in several categories, including food and agriculture and supporting industries.

Although these federal government guidelines indicate that the food industry should continue to operate, it is ultimately up to the authority of local and state jurisdictions to determine how restrictions may impact food companies during this time. So, companies and workers should check state and local recommendations and directives in making status determinations for operations that qualify as essential critical infrastructure under this federal guidance.

Q: Are federal agencies allowing any labeling flexibility on food products in response to the COVID-19?
The FDA is providing labeling flexibility to restaurants and food manufacturers with flexibility regarding nutrition labeling of certain packaged food. Separate from this guidance, FDA intends to work cooperatively with manufacturers for the remainder of the year regarding using updated Nutrition and Supplement Facts labels and will not focus on enforcement actions during this time. The FDA also released new guidance and a temporary policy on standard menu item nutrition labeling claims at chain restaurants.

USDA FSIS released a constituent update on March 23 providing details on labeling flexibility for producers moving product intended for food service to retail. These rules apply only to product that has already been produced. Items currently being produced are expected to meet all regulatory requirements.

ASTA worked with industry and FDA to request labeling flexibility as it relates to minor ingredient omissions or substitutions that do not present a food safety hazard, such as an allergen change. With current supply chain disruptions in some countries due to COVID-19, companies may need to purchase products on the spot market or from new suppliers. The FBIA, of which ASTA is an active member, sent a letter to the FDA with examples of short-term ingredient labeling flexibility needs that may occur during this time.

Q: Is ASTA aware of disruptions to food operations as a result of local bans and restrictions?
It is important that any business consult their state and local government agencies to find out if any additional guidance for their area has been issued or provided. Thankfully it seems that state and local governments’ approaches to date generally align with the federal guidelines and ASTA is not aware of food company operations that have been disrupted by state or local governmental actions. Nonetheless, companies may find it useful to provide their employees, contractors, and carriers with a letter confirming that the individual is traveling to or from a food facility or transporting food or materials in the event state or local authorities question whether the individual is in violation of local restrictions.

More information below:
Hogan Lovells Memorandums:

Q: Where can I find more information on state and local emergency declarations?
The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) created a webpage for state and local emergency declarations and hotlines. Additionally, the National Governors Association Resources has information on state and local actions.

Q: What if I have a small business and I need some help or assistance financially?
The Small Business Administration (SBA) created a Small Business Guidance & Loan Resources page that includes information on the Paycheck Protection Program, SBA Debt Relief, Guidance for Businesses and Employers, SBA Products and Resources, and other SBA programs.

Q: What should I do if my food processing operations are interrupted by the pandemic?
Please let ASTA know if your company experiences operation disruptions by calling 202-331-2460. Additionally, if your company has any issues that occur with food supply chains, including issues with transportation or moving food, FDA asks that you reach out directly to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Business Emergency Operations Center (NBEOC) or send an email to [email protected] for 24/7 assistance.

Q: What if I have a question to ask the FDA?
FDA’s CFSAN is prioritizing questions regarding COVID-19. Questions can be submitted here.

Q: What is ASTA doing to advocate for the continued operation of the food supply?
ASTA is closely monitoring governmental guidelines from federal agencies and working with a broad coalition of food trade associations to ensure that the FDA and other agencies that impact the food industry make sure that Americans continue to have access to safe, healthy foods. ASTA signed a letter asking that the federal and state governments coordinate and clearly explain that manufacturers of food, beverage and consumer packaged goods are exempted from gathering and curfew bans, which is consistent with the designation of the food and agriculture industry as “critical infrastructure” by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

ASTA also signed onto a letter  advocating for the extension of existing FDA comment deadlines to allow the industry to focus on the COVID-19 response.

Q: What do spice companies need to know about the Family First Act?
The Family First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with fewer than 500 employees and all government employers to provide emergency leave benefits to employees including the right to take up to two week paid sick time and up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. There is a potential exception, determined by the Secretary of Labor, for employers with fewer than 50 employees that would suffer ‘undue hardship’ from this mandate. The act would also provide tax relief for these new benefits, along with additional aid. Additional information available in this Hogan Lovells memorandum.

Q: What is the CARES Act and how does it impact small businesses?
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, is a $2 trillion economic stimulus package to provide direct benefits to American workers, struggling industries, and small businesses. The legislation includes tax benefits and loans for small businesses, including loan guarantees. Additionally, there are several tax credits available for employers, as well as changes made to emergency employee leave benefits enacted in previous legislation. This Hogan Lovells memo provides additional background information. Additionally, a memo on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is available. The PPP is part of the CARES Act that will provide loans through the SBA of up to US$10 million to fund payroll costs, interest on mortgage obligations, utilities, salaries, and other forms of compensation.

Q: What is the Defense Production Act?
The Defense Production Act (DPA) provides the president of the United States the authority to require that the private sector prioritize or produce certain materials. The DPA may be used to require private companies to prioritize certain orders, produce supplies or provide services necessary in the response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Maintaining Food Safety & Inspections

Q: Is the FDA currently conducting food safety inspections?
FDA temporarily postponed all domestic routine surveillance facility inspections in response to concerns about COVID-19 and in the interest of the health and well-being of FDA inspectors and staff at inspected facilities. FDA is evaluating alternative methods to conduct inspections including record evaluations in lieu of onsite facility inspection. FDA intends to only perform inspections considered mission critical, such as when there are for-cause grounds for inspections.

The FDA is also postponing most foreign inspections through April. FDA is confident in its ability to maintain oversight over international manufacturers and imported products using alternative tools and methods. FDA will use other tools at its disposal, including denying entry of unsafe products into the U.S., physical examinations and/or product sampling at borders, reviewing a firm’s previous compliance history, and using information sharing from foreign governments as part of mutual recognition and confidentiality agreements. FDA will resume foreign inspections as soon as feasible.

Beginning April 3, the FDA is shifting Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) to remote inspections  and is requesting that importers send required records electronically. The FDA has determined that most routine onsite inspections are temporarily impractical and will shift to conducting FSVP inspections remotely until further notice.

Q: How can spice companies continue to conduct supplier verification activities in the absence of onsite audits?
The FDA released guidance for industry entitled: Temporary Policy Regarding Preventive Controls and FSVP Food Supplier Verification Onsite Audit Requirements During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. FDA’s guidance document announces a temporary policy not to enforce requirements to conduct on site audits under FSMA regulations for the Preventive Controls for Human Food (PCHF), Preventive Control for Animal Food (PCAF), and Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) under certain situations related to COVID-19 if other supplier verification methods are used instead.

The Consumer Brands Association has developed these recommendations for alternative supplier verification requirements in emergency situations.

Q: Is the coronavirus impacting sterilization treatment capacity for Salmonella control of spice products?
Yes, for some ethylene oxide facilities. Sterigenics has decided to temporarily suspend ethylene oxide processing of spices in Santa Teresa, New Mexico facility. Sterigenics Los Angeles ethylene oxide facility is also restricting the volume of spices to very low levels. This is due to the demand for processing products specific to coronavirus response. This virus is having less of an effect on the gamma processing facilities. This situation changes daily so please contact Sterigenics Food/Commercial sales for the latest availability at 402-315-7978.

Q: Are other non-governmental entities conducting food safety inspections or audits?
Other non-governmental programs or auditors are also likely to be postponed. Each individual company and supplier should check with your suppliers to determine their policy regarding audits or expiring certifications. The International Accreditation Forum suggests that companies may introduce alternative arrangements to conduct assessments, including making arrangements to conduct assessments remotely or rescheduling activities if necessary.

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) has published a position paper on the COVID-19 outbreak with a set of considerations to follow in order to comply with GFSI . Availability of information on third-party certification bodies policies and positions follows.

    1. The International Featured Standards (IFS) published policy and measures.
    2. BRCGS issued guidance to certification bodies arranging BRCGS recertification audits.
    3. The Safe Quality Food Institute (SQF) addressed stakeholders in a letter.
    4. FSSC 22000 published a position paper and Q&A.

The coronavirus task force has also reported that some audits are being conducted virtually.

Q: Are there any employee training courses available for food manufacturer workers?
There are third party courses available, including Intertek Alchemy COVID-19 training materials ensuring that workers know how to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, recognize symptoms and prevent transmission to others. These training materials can be downloaded here.

Impact on Spice Companies

Q: What impact could COVID-19 have on the spice industry?
There is the potential for both direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic on the spice industry. Disruptions could include labor shortages, transportation challenges, import delays, supply shortages, and infrastructural interruptions (utilities, waste management, telecommunications, etc.). The Food and Beverage Trade Association CEO Group sent a letter to the White House outlining essential components of the food industry value chain. Additionally, a large group of industries sent a letter asking industries be consistently designated essential and permitted to maintain operations throughout this challenging time. Further, this publication outlines direct and indirect impacts on the food industry as a result of a pandemic.

Q: What do I need to be aware of if I need to find an alternative supplier for my supply chain?
With current supply chain disruptions in some countries due to COVID-19, companies may need to purchase products on the spot market or from new suppliers. ASTA reminds members to be cognizant in identifying and preventing adulteration in these situations as well by downloading the ASTA Identification and Prevention of Adulteration Guidance Document.

Q: What can my business to do mitigate the impact of an outbreak?
The CDC has an active resource guide for businesses. The CDC stresses that employers must consider how to decrease the spread of any illness in order to lower the impact in their workplace in the event of an outbreak. Employers should consider how to:

  • reduce transmission among staff;
  • protect those at higher risk for adverse health complications;
  • maintain business operations; and
  • minimize adverse effects on other entities in their supply chains.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides a fact sheet for on information to protect workers during a pandemic.

What are some best practices to mitigate risks for employees?
Some best practices include encouraging sick employees to stay home from work, separating employees who become sick at work, and educating employees about ways to reduce risks including maintaining proper hygiene. Companies should implement practices to promote social distancing. Social distancing practices for the food industry are outlined in the FDA’s Food Safety and Coronavirus page. Companies should consider postponing visitors to facilities. The Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University made a sample food facility COVID-19 strategy checklist.

Employers are able to screen employees who are continuing to come to work to determine if they may be sick, including asking if they have symptoms of COVID-19 and asking if they have tested positive for the virus. Employers may also ask if an employee has been exposed to the virus, such as if “anyone in their household” has tested positive, but should avoid asking specific questions about family members, pre-existing conditions, etc. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued updated guidance for employers regarding pandemic preparedness in the workplace. The EEOC guidance clarifies that employers may require employees to undergo temperature screens. Consistent with CDC guidance, the EEOC guidance reinforces that employees with symptoms of COVID-19 should not be in the workplace. It is very important that the responses to any of these screening protocols must remain confidential.

Administrative employees should be encouraged to work from home if possible. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has released an alert increased cybersecurity risks related to telework and put out guidelines to help mitigate these risks.

Q: What are the FDA and CDC’s positions on face coverings?
On April 3, the CDC released updated recommendations regarding the use of cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19. CDC recommends voluntary cloth face coverings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. For workers in food production and processing that do not wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as part of their normal jobs function, the FDA recommends maintaining face coverings in accordance with parameters in FDA’s Model Food Code sections 4-801.11 Clean Linens and 4.802.11 Specifications and laundering reusable face coverings before each daily use. CDC has additional information on the use of face coverings, including washing instructions and information on how to make homemade face covers.

Q: What should a company do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?
FDA has indicated that if a food manufacturer identifies an ill employee, it does not mean that products produced in that facility need to be place on hold or recalled. Companies should:

  • Inform fellow employees of a potential exposure, while maintaining confidentiality;
  • Identify employees that may have had close contact with the infected individual;
  • Notify local health authorities;
  • Conduct enhanced cleaning and sanitation per CDC guidelines

Cornell has also developed sample standard operating procedures for when a worker tests positive.

Supply Chain Impacts

Q: Is the spice industry experiencing any supply challenges related to COVID19?
The biggest impact to the spice industry at the moment is the government lockdown in India. India is one of the world’s largest spice producing countries, with exports to the U.S. of over 71,000 metric tons of spices in 2019. India provides approximately 20% of the entire supply of spices to the U.S. The entire supply market in India is at a standstill, as no new product is entering the market, therefore no product is leaving India for U.S. export.

Q: How are spice producing countries responding?
Each country is responding to the pandemic in its own way. Although Italy is on a shutdown, food processing operations are continuing since food is an essential industry. India announced a 21-day lockdown starting on March 24, which is likely to be extended. Indonesia is debating whether to announce a countrywide lockdown at this time. At this point, China and Vietnam still seem to be shipping spices, even if they are somewhat slow or delayed, but still flowing, but there are other additional concerns in Latin American countries such as Brazil.

Q: Are there shortages or supply challenges of other food products?
Based on industry projections, current U.S. spice inventories will only cover at most 3-6 months of demand. Without additional supply from overseas, the spice industry could very well exhaust current supply sooner than expected. If U.S. supply is exhausted, we would expect our ASTA members to be forced to make some extremely difficult choices about which orders to fill and how to maintain business as a going concern, which will shrink consumer product availability considerably.

The FDA is closely monitoring the food supply chain for any shortages within the food industry, along with federal and state partners, food manufacturers, and grocery stores. There are no nationwide shortages of food, although in some cases the inventory of certain foods at grocery stores may fluctuate. Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the United States and as of March, no widespread disruptions have been reported in the supply chain. FDA has additional information on its website on food availability in the United States.

Please contact Jessica Skerritt or (202) 331-2467 if you have additional questions.

Coronavirus Webinar for Food Companies
The Food and Beverage Issues Alliance (FBIA) webinar, featuring the CDC, addressed specific issues for the food industry about COVID-19, including questions on food processing, maintaining employee health, testing, and response issues.

This content is only available to members. Please sign in to access.

Video: COVID19 facts and fiction for the food industry
This webinar will summarize the current state of knowledge about the virus, its epidemiology, transmission and control from the perspective of the food supply chain. Featuring Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus, Ph.D.

This content is only available to members. Please sign in to access.

Video: COVID19 overview of coronaviruses and the current situation
This webinar presentation will cover biological aspects of coronaviruses, disease symptoms, viral transmission and mitigation options

This content is only available to members. Please sign in to access.