In response to concerns about food safety and supply issues during the coronavirus pandemic, Frank Yiannas, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, answered some questions this week that may have been on people’s minds lately.
The FDA has been assuring the public “that there is no nationwide shortage of food, that local outages of certain products are the result of unprecedented demand during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the agency said in a statement released Thursday afternoon in the form of a lengthy Q-and-A with Yiannas.
Yiannas understands people’s concerns when they see empty grocery store shelves, he said, “because I’ve seen the same thing when I go to my local grocery store with foods like flour, pasta and some canned goods. These shortages are temporary because of unprecedented consumer demand, not a lack of the food system’s ability to produce, process and deliver food.”
Grocery stores typically carry more than 50,000 different kinds of food products, Yiannas noted. “And while there are reported outages in some stores of select products, the reality is that most of the food items you typically find in a grocery store remain there,” he said.
He also addressed concerns about food safety following news that some meat processing plants were closing temporarily after employees tested positive for COVID-19, saying he was aware of the closures. “However, because of the way the virus is transmitted, we do not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or be withdrawn from the market if a person who works on a farm or in a food facility tests positive for COVID-19,” Yiannas said.
The FDA deputy commissioner said the government is working to help solve supply chain issues, but there is no real food shortage in the country overall.
“There is plenty of food; it’s just not in all the right places based on disruptions to supply chains and markets,” Yiannas said.
The FDA is continuing to look for any signs of potential of foodborne illness outbreaks, and although some of its regularly scheduled inspections have been temporarily put on hold because of the coronavirus, food producers, packagers and transporters are still required to meet the standards enforced through those inspections.
Yiannas also said the coronavirus crisis is providing lessons that will inform the FDA’s future work.
“I think health and safety are going to be even more important in the ‘new normal’ that follows the pandemic,” he said. “One aspect of this is that consumers are increasingly going to want to know more about their food – where it was grown or produced and what measures have been taken to ensure that it is safe for them to eat.”
The FDA is working on a “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” initiative, which it hopes will “enable a more digital, traceable food system” and “increase transparency and resiliency” and could help the agency deal with the kind of supply chain issues that have been seen during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We will get through this together and will be better, stronger, and more resilient than ever,” Yiannas said.