Food scientists mentor international COVID-19 task force

Food businesses and consumers struggling with impacts of COVID-19 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kenya, Nepal and Senegal now have access to customized resources, thanks to a mentorship project led by the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University (IFS@CU).

“The food systems in our target countries are fragile and highly susceptible to ramifications from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D. ’97, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). “It’s essential that we support infrastructure and provide guidance for managing this unprecedented challenge to food security.”

There is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food or food packaging, but the food industry must implement measures to manage the risks associated with COVID-19 within its workforce. Reducing person-to-person transmission across the food system, from farming to harvest and processing, can prevent shutdowns of processing facilities, reduce disruptions in the supply chain and help stabilize the food supply.

This spring, Wiedmann and colleagues at IFS@CU launched a series of resources for U.S.-based commercial food processors and consumers, including a comprehensive website and live office hours. In July, a new grant from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety (FSIL) allowed them to expand the existing platform to include additional resources for the five target countries.

“In the end, basic control strategies are the best guidance for controlling COVID-19, and these are the same in the United States and abroad,” said Aljosa Trmcic, project co-principal investigator and extension associate in the Dairy Foods Extension Program (CALS). “The challenge really lies in achieving consistent implementation.”

The IFS@CU team has been working in collaboration with task force members in each country to develop a dedicated website with international resources for both food industry members and for consumers. These materials include translations of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, food safety infographics, frequently asked industry questions, standard operating procedures and decision trees for employers.

In November, the task force also released the first in a series of FAQ videos to answer consumers’ questions about COVID-19 and address rumors.

“The pandemic is global, but we learned from our collaborators that misinformation about cures and contamination is actually quite specific to countries and regions,” said Beth Demmings, Ph.D. ’11, project manager and co-PI. “As subject matter experts in their countries, they are well positioned to dispel myths and communicate about the activities that carry risk.”

In addition to the FAQ videos, the task force will be holding live virtual office hours to field COVID-19-related questions from an international audience. The first, held on Dec. 11, will reach farmers, food industry workers and consumers in Nepal.

“Although there is no evidence that COVID-19 is foodborne, spread of the illness within the food industry workforce can cause significant disruptions in the food supply,” said Randy Worobo, associate director of FSIL and professor of food science (CALS). “This project is not only important in the short term – it has piloted a new task-force model to build capacity and strengthen food safety and security in these and other countries.”

The COVID-19 response project is funded by the Food Safety Innovation Lab, which launched in August 2019 and aims to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges in agriculture and food insecurity. Jointly managed by Cornell and Purdue universities, FSIL is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

Amanda Garris is the communications specialist for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety.

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Lindsey Knewstub