CORONAVIRUS

FDA issues new supermarket, food retail guidelines

Move intended to protect workers, customers

With its new best-practices list, the FDA suggests employers assess workers' health before they start a shift, including
With its new best-practices list, the FDA suggests employers assess workers’ health before they start a shift, including temperature checks. (Associated Press)

The Food and Drug Administration has announced a comprehensive list of best practices to protect workers and consumers in the essential businesses that are feeding Americans during a pandemic when everyone is supposed to keep his or her distance.

Many of the guidelines reiterate practices already in place or are considered a routine part of the food business — social distancing, no facial touching, standard food-safety procedures.

But they also emphasize what companies should do to protect employees and maintain a safe workplace during the ongoing outbreak.

The FDA suggests employers assess workers’ health before they start a shift, including temperature checks. Employees should wear masks, maintain six feet of separation from co-workers and assess their own health throughout the day.

If an employee turns up sick at the workplace, the FDA is recommending protocols to try to prevent the spread of the virus and avoid what happened at a Smithfield Foods processing plant in South Dakota, which was shut down this week after 80 employees were confirmed to have the coronavirus.

The agency’s protocols include cleaning and disinfecting the work station of the infected employee; acknowledging that all employees within six feet of the infected worker likely have been exposed; and informing fellow employees of their possible exposure while maintaining confidentiality.

Notably, the FDA’s guidelines include contract workers, who are not considered formal employees, such as the drivers for food delivery companies.

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The agency is recommending employees wear gloves and masks at all times, while asking employers to discontinue “salad bars, buffets and beverage service stations that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers.”

The FDA also is encouraging retail stores to figure out ways to maintain six feet of space between customers in checkout lines or while waiting on a service.

Yet because the FDA’s authority is limited to food safety, the agency cannot require that restaurants, retail stores and other shops limit the number of customers who enter their establishments.

These requirements must come from local jurisdictions.

An FDA spokesman said the agency’s new guidelines were not a response to a letter Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent this week.

“We will respond directly to the senator,” the spokesman, Peter Cassell, wrote in an email.

The senator’s Tuesday letter to the heads of the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked the agencies “to issue and promote clear guidance for workers in the retail food industry and their customers.”

The CDC also updated its safety guidelines this week.

The senator said he was moved to action after an interaction with a supermarket worker who was “probably more exposed than almost anyone outside our medical community to hundreds of people a day, any one of which could have coronavirus.”

The latest FDA guidelines, however, are not mandates, which Markey would prefer to recommendations. They still leave safety decisions up to individual businesses.

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“This overdue new guidance is an improvement from the minimal information FDA and CDC previously provided, but the Trump administration must do more to promote these resources to employers, employees and consumers, and must ensure businesses are implementing these worker protections,” Markey wrote in a statement.

“Our front-line workers at grocery stores and in the retail food industry are making it possible for families and businesses to survive this pandemic, and we owe it to them to provide the resources they need to protect their lives and the public’s health.”

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.