COVID-19: What Food Packagers Can Do to Ensure Safety

Gary Kestenbaum

May 20, 2020

8 Min Read
COVID-19: What Food Packagers Can Do to Ensure Safety
Photo credit: littlewolf1989 –

Safety protocols already exist for food packaging facilities. Here’s how you can use them to analyze and mitigate your COVID-19 risks.

A lot of news articles written during this pandemic focus on grocery store/food shopping safety. Experts seem to have allayed consumer anxiety about the safety and security of raw, processed, and cooked comestibles. However, some medical experts have said the risks associated with human hand contact on food packaging are worth discussion and mitigation.

Information on the internet about the possible risks runs the gamut. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website provides the following guidance, current as of May 1, 2020: “…there is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, if (shoppers) wish, (they) can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air dry, as an extra precaution.”

News reports suggest otherwise, relaying that the virus is viable for contact spread on permeable paperboard (paper grocery bags) for up to 24 hours and as long as 72 hours on non-permeable surfaces (rigid packaging). At least two media outlets suggest leaving delivered items in the garage for at least 24 hours before handling. Others suggest letting purchased goods sit for longer periods.

There has not been enough validated scientific experimentation to accurately quantify and qualify transmission characteristics. Case in point, a medical professional from the University of Massachusetts stated in a TV-news soundbite that a minimum of 1,000 Covid-19 virions would be necessary to cause “infection,” whereas another internet source wrote that 100 were capable. According to some sources, sneezes and coughs aerosolize hundreds of millions of virions.

Who knows what to believe — and therein lies the point.

Consumers are left to obtain and believe information from myriad sources. Answers to questions involving longevity, viability risk scenarios, and transmission of COVID-19 are works-in-progress because scientists and researchers simply haven’t had the time and resources to perform technically and statistically defensible experiments, let alone analyze and validate data from same. Nothing I have read suggests when viable resources will be freed up to perform such experiments.

What packaging changes for safety should you make?

Following that background, how can available packaging technology resources best support supply chain safety? Are resources best spent ideating changes to packaging materials or processes to help reduce virus contact viability or, similarly, contact contagion?

Part of my answer is based on precepts of consumer products marketing I learned during my time spent with major food marketing companies. Marketing professionals are usually inclined to support new packaging technologies, but they need to see supportive evidence that consumers consider the improvements or innovations as value-added and, most importantly, functional.

Put in plain English, does the change achieve the objective in a real-consumer environment under a number of challenging real-world use situations, and, if so, to what degree? The last thing a consumer products marketer wants is a media blitz announcing a failed claim. Alternatively, if the marketer is disinclined to make a claim in the first place (“This new package will do/eliminate 99% of all things the other packaging didn’t!”), then what is the point of spending the money for research, development, and commercialization?

With COVID-19, consumers are hanging on every claim or observation that makes it to the internet or news outlets. So, whatever positive information is disseminated, it better be value-added, useful, believable, and accurate against some statistically defensible model.

Food packaging plants already do risk analysis.

Generally, food and food packaging safety professionals are continuously ideating and adjusting best practices to reduce the risks to the food supply chain. Food-safety experts may not have specifically anticipated the insidious and relentless virus that is COVID-19, but they have focused efforts on anticipating and providing control guidance and practices for calamitous events.

For as many years as I can remember, food and food packaging professionals have considered and addressed risks of contamination, tampering, tamper evidence, and food defense, as well as other catastrophic risks to health and safety.

The bottom line: Consumers have the right to expect that the foods they buy are legal, approved for human/pet use, unadulterated, safe, uncontaminated, truthfully labeled or described, and so forth. Suddenly, an insidious pathogen with incredibly broad health impacts is upon the world. Experts, actual and self-styled, suggest mitigations, best practices, and related guidance, and then, suddenly, information arises suggesting that said guidance was partially or wholly inaccurate.

Considering these limits and challenges, how best can you use limited resources? My suggestion is to revisit existing food safety systems — such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) or Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls (HARPC) — in the face of many unknowns. The process is a back-to-basics or reboot of situation and risk analyses that exist for each food supply touch point.

Whether one is analyzing the risk of COVID-19 contamination or transmission to an existing, new, or revised process, expert eyes need to (re)initiate hazard analysis and mitigation methodologies. What is the level of presumption that goods, processes, materials, and infrastructure may have somehow been contaminated or may facilitate transmissible of COVID-19 virions? It’s likely we don’t have enough information to answer that with absolute certainty. And, keep in mind, as of this writing, not everyone can be tested and, of those who are tested, false positives/negatives may be in the 20% range.

What are the specific challenges today though?

Here are several food packaging safety-related situational challenges to consider when assessing point-of-purchase risks:

• Supplier and providers cannot yet be assured at a statistically validated level that any product or item will be free of viral contaminants. Products come in contact with too many hands or surfaces along the way to verify microbiological purity at the point of purchase or whenever the consumer receives it.

• Even if a product is overwrapped, such as the example of how an envelope protects the contents inside from many exposures, the risk is that the envelope or external package itself is at risk for contamination. Thus, if consumers intend to be copious and diligent, they should wear gloves and use sanitizing media on the exterior before it is removed.

• Similarly, consumer attitudes matter. Following a posted advisory for lettuce contaminated with E. coli, for example, consumers saw pre-bagged lettuce in the store with graphics suggesting that the lettuce had been washed and otherwise treated to insure it was contamination-free. In the absence of a certificate of analysis (COA) and test methodology summary, shoppers had to impulsively decide if the claim was legitimate and the risk eliminated. My suspicion is that, in this atmosphere of COVID-19 scientific uncertainties, consumers will be skeptical.

• Packaging and Quality subject-matter experts (SMEs) are asking whether safety is the new sustainability. From my experiences of viewing focus group comments at the time when sustainability and recycling began to significantly impact purchase intent for consumers and retailers, respondents strongly advised that their purchase intent would be impacted by sustainability and packaging qualities and quantity (over-packaging) with the intent to “save the planet.” Hence, they strongly desired a change from packaging business as usual.

Fast-forward, I suspect they’d respond very differently when asked about their purchase intents on products intended to “save their lives.” I’ll bet that now if you told them that their foods would be safer with more packaging, they’d be very positive to concept. “Packaging sustainability” remains defined, at least in part, as best practices intended to protect the food, the end user, and the planet’s future. Packaging safety in the age of COVID-19 mitigation is basically intended to keep us alive and healthy for the foreseeable future.

My advice to those in the food and packaging supply chain would be stay the course and avoid a rush to alter packaging materials. Because not enough is known, or absolute, about the life-cycle, potency, and transmission risks of the COVID-19 virus on surfaces.

Alternatively, I would embrace the sensible recommendations of BRCGS in the recent Managing Food Safety During COVID-19 guidance document, which restates best food and food packaging standards and practices to address risk categories that have existed for decades:

• Establish, revalidate, or revisit cross-functional team approaches for assessment, analysis, and mitigation.

• Review HACCP and HARPC objectives, purposes, and execution.

• Review and revise new, existing, and emergency supplier and raw material approval processes.

• Review, revise and improve internal/independent audit programs used to verify adherence to food safety standards and best practices.

• Review and revise processes for approving employee, temporary worker, and visitor health and hygiene.

• Upgrade sanitation, housekeeping, and hygiene protocols based on latest literature by validated experts.

During these times of limited knowledge, information, resources, work protocols, factory employee positive tests, and so forth, I respectfully suggest that a “back to basics” approach to food and packaging supply chain safety is the best use of time and resources.

Leave the issues of how to shop safely and how to handle consumer goods brought into the house to the microbiologists, sanitarians, and public health experts. Manufacturers and packagers are best positioned when focusing on presenting unit loads of safe, sanitary products to the shipping dock — and then it’s up to the next link in the chain to perform similarly.

About the Author(s)

Gary Kestenbaum

Gary Kestenbaum is an independent food packaging consultant with 45 years of experience in the food industry as a food ingredient technician with National Starch, a food product developer with General and Kraft Foods, a senior package developer with Kraft Foods and a senior food packaging safety consultant with EHA Consulting Group.

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