COVID-19: Its Effect on Food in the Workplace and Home

[Editor's note:  In response to a request from Shelf Life Advice, food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser submitted this account of changes in food factories, procedures for fighting contagion, and home cooking that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Dr. Bowser serves on the faculty of Oklahoma State University and is a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board.] 


COVID-19: Its Effect on Food in the Workplace and Home

by Dr. Timothy Bowser


Shortages, Food Factories, and Protecting Against Contagion


The  Food and Drug Administration has maintained that there is no food shortage. How does that explain bare shelves, long lines and frustrated consumers? 


Some temporary shortages are expected due to unusually high demand and unique circumstances. Most items are still in stock and available. Manufacturers are working extra shifts to replenish stock, and supply chains are adding deliveries to move products where they are needed. Companies respond well to this type of pressure. In fact, most companies are thrilled when their products sell out. They do everything they can to meet demand, and many are proving their amazing productivity and spirit during these difficult times.


The pandemic has transformed what used to be accepted practices and conditions at some factories (including food processors) into weaknesses. Close working conditions may not have been previously perceived as being a weakness, but the virus has changed that notion. Now,  break rooms must be larger to accommodate social distancing. Shifts need to be staggered to limit the number of people in locker rooms. More bathrooms are needed. Separation between work stations is required, and more frequent and better cleaning is needed to reduce contagion.


Food factories that rely on large numbers of workers in concentrated areas are the most susceptible to the virus. Unfortunately, these conditions are common in meat-processing plants, and their problems are currently in the news. Meat-processing plants are models for manufacturing clean and safe food products, but, overall, they have not been designed to prevent the spread of a virus among their workers. This is quickly changing worldwide as factories adopt new practices to prevent contagion. Until they do, there may be some disruption in meat supply.


Workers in the food industry must become accustomed to new policies and procedures necessary to prevent contagion. New polices may be regarded as an invasion of privacy or violation of personal rights. Policies should be developed to protect food and human safety but always with employees' rights in mind.  Examples of potential new policies include the following:


Automated body temperature scans: Scans may be done remotely by camera as persons enter the facility. Some people will be required to have follow-up exams if detected temperatures are too high.


Social distancing: Workers may not be able to enjoy the company of their coworkers as they have in the past.


New hours: Employees may be required to arrive and leave work at different times to prevent overcrowding of facilities such as entryways and locker rooms.


More protective equipment: Masks, gloves, aprons, shields, improved ventilation, and other devices may be required if they aren't already. Some protective gear may be redesigned to work more efficiently.


More procedures: These may include more and better hand washing, more frequent and enhanced procedures for donning and doffing of personal protective equipment, periodic disinfection of work areas and equipment, more frequent uniform changes, staggered shifts and breaks, social distancing, electronic tracking, and remote training.


More exposure: Cleaning and sanitizing chemicals will be more prolific in the work environment. Most will be harmless, but even soap may cause issues like dry skin.


Big data tracking: Mega computer programs may be used to track people and their activities to determine those most susceptible or at risk of contagion.


Home Cooking


Fewer trips to the grocery store and scarcity of some products have changed home cooking routines and menus. Reduced shopping frequency has resulted in a reduction in the use of fresh ingredients. Scarcity of some ingredients has resulted in new creativity and changed norms. Cloth towels are being used instead of paper. Canned foods are experiencing a revival because of their inherent safety, longer shelf life, and availability. Some home cooks have found time to make better and more elaborate meals. Other home cooks have discovered that they have a lot to learn and are taking advantage of the opportunity. More children are experiencing the addition of cooking into their home-schooling.


[Editor's note: Most families obeying the "stay  home" rule are spending significantly more on food now that so much of  it must be delivered. But food problems are much worse for those who, because of the virus, have become unemployed, underemployed, or furloughed don't have enough money to buy food for the family.  Food insecurity is a painful hardship when a family doesn't know where the next meal is coming from. On May 17, here's what the Chicago Tribune said about this: "Two in 10 working adults said that in the past 30 days, they ran out of food before they could earn enough money to buy more.  One-quarter worried that would happen."


Those who have not become ill from COVID-19 are extremely grateful but find it difficult not to be annoyed if not depressed by the many alterations in lifestyle that have affected adults now shut out from their usual work environment, the financial troubles the situation has caused, the disruption of academics for their children who are students, the isolation of social distancing, and more. Then there is the pervasive sadness about the global effect--the painful news stories of grieving family members, illness, and death, especially when endured by people devoted to helping others. 


 Concerning food, one good note: COVID-19 is a respiratory infection.  It is  not entering our bodies through our food supply. Its effects upon what we eat are wholly indirect.] 


Want to read more about the contagion problems and attempted solutions in food factories?  Shelf Life Advice recommends this article in Food Safety Tech: "How Are Companies Impacted by Labor Shortages?"



Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Chicago Tribune "Fear of hunger ramps up amid pandemic, economy" May 17, 2020



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