A virtual town hall meeting hosted by the Produce Marketing Association on Wednesday, March 25, provided more insight regarding COVID-19 and the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, with PMA CEO Cathy Burns noting the global pandemic has “upended our world.”
Burns added PMA is committed to conveying to consumers that the global supply chain is healthy and there’s enough food “if everyone shops normally.”
Several times during the online gathering Burns reiterated there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted either through food items or on packaging.
Burns also said the association is developing a consumer marketing plan on food safety salient points and said, “We can get through this together… we need each other now more than ever.”
The food safety aspect was also addressed by PMA Chief Science Officer Max Teplitski, who said, “Now is not the time to relax food safety standards.” He stressed the fact that fresh produce other than ready-to-eat should be washed by consumers prior to eating.
And, Teplitski said, a document released by the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made it permissible to question employees about their health status as well as take employees’ temperatures.
Hunt Shipman with Cornerstone, a government affairs lobbying group, said the U.S. government is “very much in response mode” now, providing regulatory relief to producers as well as sustaining food programs for consumers. Homeland Security is also providing guidance for the food industry, and the USDA is processing H2-A visa applications “with greater flexibility” to supply the industry with labor.
Shipman said allowances are being made to enable the foodservice industry to sell some products in the retail sector. He said some items had been “stranded in the supply chain,” and clarity and flexibility from the FDA to repackage product into smaller units while maintaining food safety standards.
Burns noted there has been a trend to home delivery services and meal kits, and e-commerce was also being utilized more. “Traditional retail is also strong,” she said. “Our challenge is to ensure fruits and vegetables and floral are part of the consumer basket” in whatever manner the items are purchased, she added. It is incumbent on the industry to make sure consumers know products are available and that fruits and vegetables boost the immune system.
Consumer campaigns are being created by Sprouthouse Agency, and Burns said it is expected that assets for fruits and vegetables will be ready for release soon. “We’re hoping to enlist partners to spread the word,” she said, of the benefit of fresh product in improving health.