Food Safety During COVID-19 Pandemic: FDA to Relax Some Requirements, USDA Inspections Continue

March 18, 2020

During the COVID-19 (coronavirus) national emergency, the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to emphasize measures intended to keep the food supply safe.

On March 17, 2020, as part of an effort to redirect resources and prevent disruptions in the food supply chain, FDA issued its “Temporary Policy Regarding Preventive Controls and FSVP Food Supplier Verification Onsite Audit Requirements During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: Guidance for Industry.” Under this policy, FDA will not enforce the requirements for on-site audits of Foreign Supplier Verification Programs during the COVID-19 national emergency for importers and receiving facilities.

FDA expects importers and receiving facilities to conduct sampling, testing or review of food safety records to ensure hazards have been controlled in the food supply chain. Specifically, FDA will not enforce the Foreign Supplier Verification Program audit requirements where (1) food is manufactured in a country for which government travel restrictions related to COVID-19 have issued, (2) it has already been determined by the receiving facility and importer that on-site audits were an appropriate verification activity, and (3) the receiving facility and importer have selected an alternate method of verification, such as sampling or reviewing food safety data. Once the COVID-19 national emergency subsides, FDA expects on-site audits to resume. At this time, McGuireWoods lawyers do not believe this carries over to domestic verification programs or on-site audits, but that will likely be amended in the coming weeks as well.

Additionally, FDA recently updated the dedicated page for COVID-19, which serves as a good resource to communicate FDA’s positions on food safety during the public health emergency. FDA continues to stress that COVID-19, at this time, is not known to be transmitted through food, and that a recall due to a sick worker would not be necessary, provided good manufacturing practices are otherwise followed. FDA recommends using disinfectants outlined in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2.

Similarly, USDA does not expect massive disruption in food inspection as a result of the COVID-19 national emergency. In a March 16 letter to stakeholders, Food Safety Inspection Service discussed its continued commitment to providing inspectors on-site for plants and carrying out its food safety duties. It emphasized that planning for absenteeism is part of normal FSIS operations and employees are being tracked to ensure the goals of FSIS are met.

Current good manufacturing practices and health hazard analysis mandated under the Food Safety Modernization Act are designed to address the challenges of preventing adulteration of food with pathogens. The best advice from both FDA and USDA is to follow practices in place currently and screen for sick workers.

McGuireWoods has a COVID-19 response team in place to address client emergencies that may arise during the COVID-19 national emergency, and firm attorneys will continue to monitor updates and developments from USDA and FDA.

Helpful Resources:

EPA Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2

FDA Food Safety and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Main Page

FDA Temporary Policy for FSMA Onsite Audit Requirements

March 2020 Guidance for Industry, Temporary Policy Regarding Preventive Controls and FSVP Food Supplier Verification Onsite Audit Requirements During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: Guidance for Industry