A top FDA official Thursday sought to assure a U.S. public still wondering if COVID-19 can be transmitted by food and feeling unsettled by grocery shelves empty of their favorite foods.
Frank Yiannas, Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner of food policy and response, acknowledged during a press call that the United States has entered a “new frontier” with the novel coronavirus pandemic. For example, he said the agency is adding monitoring of the domestic and imported food supply chain to its responsibilities in keeping with the Trump administration’s tracking of supply chains in general as the effects of COVID-19 spread across the country.
“Let me assure you that the FDA is committed to protecting the health of the American people and facing any challenges that might arise during this crisis. This includes ensuring that the food supply chain remains safe during the crisis and that the food supply chain from farm to table is not disrupted,” Yiannas said.
The agency posted a 30-second public service announcement with a similar message Thursday on its YouTube account.
The FDA’s traditional role is to oversee food safety for about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply. The Agriculture Department is responsible for the remaining 20 percent, which includes meat, poultry and some egg products.
Yiannas said there is no evidence that the respiratory virus can be transmitted by food or packaging on food.
“It’s a respiratory virus. The primary way it causes illnesses is largely through human to human transmission,” Yiannas said. He said outbreaks of food-borne pathogens are generally caused by bacteria. He said that if people are uneasy about packaging on food they could wipe the packaging with a disinfectant sheet and let the packaging air dry.
He also said there are no food shortages.
“I’m not really concerned right now here or in the near future,” Yiannas said.
He said the just-in-time-inventory model used by grocery stores was overwhelmed by an unexpected run on food by anxious consumers, referring to it as “the equivalent of seven Thanksgiving holidays all in one weekend.” Food suppliers and retailers are adjusting and some areas are seeing fuller grocery shelves while other areas still have bare shelves for heavily bought products, Yiannas said.
To move more food in the retail chain, the FDA recently issued guidance that allows food service companies and restaurants to sell food products to the public. The guidance was necessary because the packaging does not have the required nutrition label information for food goods sold on the retail market, Yiannas said. Access to the retail market also will help the food service industry recoup some losses caused by COVID-19 related restaurant closures or restrictions on hours.
Yiannas said egg prices are rising amid demand and that the FDA may allow the food service industry to move its eggs into retail supplies.
He also said there appear to be no shortages in imported foods, which make up 15 percent of the overall U.S. diet. However, in some categories, imported foods constitute a larger share of the American menu with 32 percent of fresh vegetables, 55 percent of fresh fruit and 94 percent of seafood coming from other countries.
Several countries have announced restrictions on exporting foods. A panel of trade experts noted those restrictions during a virtual forum held by the Washington International Trade Association. The panelists said the restrictions did not seem to be in response to shortages in those countries.
Colin Bird, director of trade negotiations at the Embassy of Canada, said the restrictions were troubling.
“This is certainly an area where bad policy can create a problem where none exists,” Bird said.
Brody Sinclair, trade and economic counselor for the New Zealand Embassy to the United States, cited the FDA’s decision to waive the nutritional information requirement on food originally meant for restaurants and other food service distribution as a step in the right direction.
“That’s a real positive thing that is happening,” Sinclair said.