US vows ‘vigilant’ food safety oversight during COVID-19

While concerned about the health of its headquarters and field staff, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it will not forsake its regulatory obligations over the safety of the country’s food supply during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

The message to the American public was released by the heads of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Agricultural Marketing Service on March 16.

“These agencies are prepared to utilize their authority and all administrative means and flexibilities to address staffing considerations. Field personnel will be working closely with establishment management and state and local health authorities to handle situations as they arise in your community,” the agency administrators said in a statement.

“As always, communication between industry and government will be key. We are all relying on early and frequent communication with one another to overcome challenges as they arise,” they added.

“We have all seen how consumers have reacted to the evolving coronavirus situation and how important access to food is to a sense of safety and well-being,” the USDA agency administrators said. “It is more important than ever that we assure the American public that government and industry will take all steps necessary to ensure continued access to safe and wholesome USDA-inspected products.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose inspectors play a role in the oversight of food imports entering the U.S., announced last week that it will postpone most overseas inspections through April. “Inspections outside the U.S. deemed mission-critical will still be considered on a case-by-case basis,” the agency said.

The FDA uses its risk-based screening tool, PREDICT, in line with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) systems and officers at the nation’s ports of entry to screen food imports.

“We are keeping a close eye out for indications of port shopping or cargo diversion and will continue our oversight of shipments through potentially higher-risk venues such as international mail facilities,” FDA said.

According to the FDA, nearly 15 million import food shipments entered the U.S. last year. Foreign markets supply about 55% of fresh fruit, 32% of vegetables and 94% of seafood consumed in the U.S. annually.