What Millers Need to Know About the COVID-19 Pandemic

The federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has designed the food and agriculture industry, including flour milling, as “critical infrastructure” required to remain in operation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorneys Maile Hermida (top) and Martin Hahn (right) with the Washington, DC law firm Hogan Lovells LLP presented a list of guidelines intended to help millers remain operational while protecting the health and safety of their employees and the general public. Hogan Lovells LLP is the North American Millers Association (NAMA) food law counsel.

They spoke April 9 as part of a webinar sponsored by NAMA and Grain Journal magazine.

“We need to consider supplying ‘critical infrastructure letters’ to employees, suppliers, and shippers, to make sure we can go about our business while much of the rest of the economy is in lockdown,” Hermida said.

In other areas:

Risk Mitigation

  • Best practices are evolving constantly. Millers need to respond dynamically to changing circumstances. Stay abreast of the latest developments.
  • Stay away from the workplace, if you are sick.
  • Wash hands frequently for 20 seconds.
  • Follow protocols for coughing and sneezing to prevent spreading droplets.
  • Perform enhanced sanitation of all surfaces including break rooms, locker rooms, buttons and screens frequently touched, etc. Beef up your cleaning schedule.
  • Food facilities must use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved sanitizer products. A list is found on the EPA web site, www.epa.gov.

Social Distancing

  • Individuals must stay six feet apart, when possible.
  • Consider operational changes that can keep the six-foot distance between workers where you can, although this will not be possible in every location in every plant.
  • Where social distancing can’t be maintained, it’s critical to keep up hygienic practices such as frequent hand washing. Gloves are not a substitute for hand washing. Even with social distancing, proper hygiene such as hand washing and sanitizing surfaces is vital.

Face Masks

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends the use of simple cloth face masks in public places where social distancing is difficult to maintain such as in grocery stores.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that face masks must be free of food particles. Masks that come into contact with food must be laundered between operations if they become sticky, wet, or visibly soiled. Face masks should be laundered at least daily. The CDC has washing instructions on its website, www.cdc.gov.
  • Avoid using surgical or N95 masks. These should be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders.

Employee Screening

  • Employee screening in the workplace may be appropriate but must be done in accordance with labor law.
  • Good practices include self-monitoring, on-site verbal questioning, and on-site temperature monitoring.
  • It’s generally safe to ask about symptoms such as cough, fever, or shortness of breath; exposure to COVID-19; reasons for being absent from work; diagnosis of COVID-19; and temperature checks.
  • It’s generally not safe to ask about diagnosis of family members or pre-existing conditions.

When Employees Become Sick

  • In general, there is no need to recall food if an employee becomes sick from COVID-19. There is no evidence the virus can be transmitted through food or food packaging.
  • Direct the employee to stay home and follow the CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
  • Contact the local public health department if the employee tests positive,
  • Conduct enhanced cleaning and sanitizing of the facility.
  • Don’t shut down the facility unless directed by the local public health department. The department will make that decision based on the chance for person-to-person transmission, not food safety.
  • Recognize that other employees will have concerns. Take steps to alleviate their fears.

Planning Ahead

  • This is the new normal for now. It doesn’t matter where your facility is located. Supply chains and streams of commerce are interconnected.
  • Develop plans to address high rates of absenteeism, supply chain disruptions, ingredient shortages, and cost impacts.
  • Address employee morale and the importance of maintaining critical infrastructure.