FDA representatives on March 18 initiated a conference call with representatives of the food industry to discuss public health and food safety issues related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The FDA was represented by Frank Yiannas (FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response), Michael Rogers (Assistant Commissioner for Human and Animal Foods), and Dr. Susan Mayne (Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition).
Initial comments were supplied by Mr. Yiannas, who asserted FDA’s commitment to assuring a safe and uninterrupted food supply during what he described as the “new frontier” presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasized that, because COVID-19 is not a food-borne virus, there is no evidence to support spread of the virus through foods or food packaging materials. Mr. Yiannas acknowledged that while it may be possible for a person to become infected from the virus by touching a contaminated contact surface and then touching one’s face, this is not thought to be the main source of transmission. As a result, he said that neither detection of the virus on food contact surfaces, nor the identification of an infected worker in a food establishment, would likely form the basis for a product recall. Mr. Yiannas further stated that there is no current shortage of food, and that FDA is working closely with both public and private partners to assure food production and distribution is not disrupted by local travel and quarantine restrictions intended to reduce COVID-19 spread.
Mr. Rogers described modifications to FDA’s domestic inspection policy, which he stated are intended to complement federal and state recommendations, and FDA’s mission to protect the public health, assure the safety of both the FDA and industry workforce, and to avoid overburdening food manufacturers. Specifically, for the foreseeable future, the agency is effectively eliminating routine surveillance activity—both foreign and domestic—and will focus on for-cause or mission-critical inspections. He also indicated that, with limited exceptions, unannounced inspection visits would be discontinued and that FDA would be working with industry to consider ways to conduct inspections without the traditional level of FDA investigators on site. Finally, due to international travel restrictions, he made reference to FDA’s recent announcement to temporarily exercise enforcement discretion as it concerns the FSVP requirement that food importers conduct onsite supplier audits of foreign suppliers.
Dr. Mayne supplemented the discussion by, among other things, identifying a new frequently asked questions (FAQ) page, which will be updated frequently, to address stakeholder questions FDA has been receiving in connection with COVID-19 concerns. View the Food Safety COVID-19 FAQ.
She also emphasized public/private coordination efforts lead by the Department of Homeland Security to respond to emergency situations regarding the food supply, including those related to transportation and energy. Dr. Mayne described FDA’s commitment to worker safety, noting that food establishments already should have food safety plans in place that contemplate and address issues involving employee health, and she encouraged reliance upon applicable CDC guidelines. She further noted that FDA is aware of shortages of products to support worker safety, such as hand sanitizer and touchless thermometers, and that the agency is working hard to assure increased production and access.
With reference to Mr. Yiannas’s remarks regarding local restrictions, she indicated that any establishments encountering issues that threaten ongoing operations or food distribution should contact FEMA at NBEOC@FEMA.dhs.gov and assert their status as a critical sector in the infrastructure. Any related food safety questions should be directed to FDA’s Food and Cosmetic Information Center at 1.888.723.3366 or through an online form.
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We hope that this is helpful and informative and will be happy to provide further assistance as this situation continues to evolve.
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 21 CFR 1.506; see also FDA Extension of Enforcement Discretion for Certain FSMA Provisions.