Food safety was not an immediate worry connected to COVID-19. But it wasn’t long before retail food establishments began worrying about protecting their workers and customers from the disease. In response to looming questions, NC State Extension scientists took their expertise to a new level.
A research team set out to develop COVID-19-specific materials that would address some of the most pressing questions around food safety in the current environment. The result was an innovative collection of resources that put NC State Extension food safety expertise all over the map, literally.
Ultimately, materials have been used in at least 40 other states as co-branded Extension materials and through links by public health departments and many other organizations. A total of 160 individual NC State Extension COVID-19 resources in English, Spanish, Creole and Mandarin are in circulation.
As part of the campaign, social media and virtual exposure for Extension and the university exploded, with more than 40,000 webpage views on the NC State Extension Food Safety Portal; 980 media hits, including print media and video; 258 social media posts of rebranded materials from partners; and 857 consumer messages shared on social media during 2020.
The team included NC State Extension food safety specialist and professor, Ben Chapman; Natalie Seymour, NC State Extension associate in Agricultural and Human Sciences; and Lee-Ann Jaykus, NC State William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and world-renowned virologist specializing in norovirus. They drew on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The team also relied on its established relationship with Extension peer review colleagues Michelle Danyluk at the University of Florida, Linda Harris at UC Davis and Don Schaffner at Rutgers.
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Safe Plates, NC State Extension’s family of evidence-based food safety programming and resources for retail, community and home-based food safety, had the infrastructure and best practices in place to rapidly develop and distribute the prepared information. “The relationships built through years of collaboration set us up to have the trust [of partner institutions],” said Seymour. “We reached out to other universities offering to co-brand materials, starting with our peer review partners.” Other universities offered translation support.
Meanwhile, Extension’s reach and COVID-19 collaborations continue to balloon—Extension is now integral to an NC State University team that will lead a two-year research program investigating COVID-19 food safety issues from field to fork. The two-year USDA grant will support FoodCoVNET, a network of researchers at NC State, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Scientists will focus on understanding the risks and best practices to address virus transmission between people in food settings like restaurants, produce packing facilities and food manufacturing settings. FoodCoVNET collaborators will quantify viral transfer to and from hands, foods and surfaces, as well as testing effectiveness of disinfecting strategies. The team will also test the viral persistence on foods, packaging and food preparation surfaces under a range of pH levels, temperatures, humidities and storage conditions.
“While we understand generally that the biggest risks in SARS-CoV-2 transmission are person-to-person, the food sector has challenges in physical distancing, managing air flow and disinfection of high-touch surfaces,” said Michelle Danyluk, University of Florida professor of food science. “Evaluating the effectiveness of strategies with specific situations in mind, such as in produce packing facilities or in transport, can hopefully lead us to help manage the devastation this pandemic has created within the food industry.”
Chapman says the work will help the food sector make decisions based on the best available science, fill knowledge gaps and provide specific training. “This pandemic is most certainly a watershed moment for the world of public health, health, science, communication and epidemiology, and that has spilled over into the world of food safety,” he said.