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YOUR SOURCE ON FOOD LITIGATION AND REGULATION

Law clerk Angela Silva contributed to this post.

As restaurants and other retail food establishments begin to reopen around the country, trade associations and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have both issued guidance for retail food establishments that provide direction, checklists, and best practices for reopening while the country emerges from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

On April 22, the National Restaurant Association issued Reopening Guidance: A Guide for the Restaurant Industry and on May 8, FDA followed suit by issuing a detailed food safety checklist, Best Practices for Re-Opening Retail Food Establishments During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

While both the reopening guidance and FDA’s checklist address many of the same topics, FDA’s checklist provides more detail in some areas, so it is important for restaurants to consult both the guidance and checklist before reopening. That said, both documents disclaim right at the beginning that their guidelines are not comprehensive, and encourage retail food establishments to collaborate with local regulatory and health authorities to discuss the specific requirements for their establishments prior to reopening.

There are many similarities between the reopening guidance and FDA’s checklist. Both documents cover cleaning and sanitizing of food contact and non–food contact surfaces, employee health and screening, and social distancing. For example, both documents recommend that restaurants include proper signage on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 and promote everyday protective measures. They also recommend that restaurants train their employees on properly sanitizing high-touch surfaces, as well as advise retail food establishments to encourage sick employees to stay home and to prescreen employees who have may have been exposed to COVID-19. Additionally, both documents advise restaurants to update their floorplans to ensure tables are at least six feet apart and to limit contact between wait staff and guests.

FDA’s checklist provides much more detail on best practices for reopening retail food establishments during the COVID-19 pandemic. It includes categories such as facility operations; water, plumbing, and ice; food temperature control; product inspection and rotation; and warewashing equipment. Specifically, in these categories, the checklist recommends that restaurants provide safe and adequate airflow by ensuring indoor ventilation systems are properly cleaned and keeping windows open when possible.

Additionally, FDA’s checklist recommends that restaurants ensure they are serving potable water, which also includes sanitizing ice machines. Furthermore, in monitoring food temperature control, and relatedly, food for spoilage or contamination, FDA’s checklist recommends ensuring calibrated thermometers are available to check equipment and product temperatures.

Importantly, most of the information in each document coincides with the guidelines CDC has recommended for other parts of the food industry, such as meat and poultry facilities. Because much of the information in the reopening guidance and FDA’s checklist is thus familiar, retail food establishments may have already started considering, and possibly implementing, such measures—especially those establishments that have remained open for takeout and delivery services and therefore may be able to fully open efficiently and safely.

Although these documents will help restaurants and retail food establishments to reopen while mitigating consumer and employee exposure, these recommended best practices may be difficult or impossible for establishments to follow in some instances. As a result, the restaurant experience for both employees and consumers may be altered for years to come.