COVID-19 Considerations for Delaware Growers

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COVID-19 Considerations for Delaware Growers
 

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a common concern and many are wondering what they can and should do. The information here is intended to help guide the fruit and vegetable farming community. If you have concerns or additional suggestions please contact the University of Delaware Produce Safety Team (gcjohn@udel.edu, jbjones@udel.edu, kniel@udel.edu) or you county extension educator.
 

Background
 

COVID-19 is the disease caused by a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) . Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath and may appear 2-14 days after exposure. It is a respiratory disease. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

While most COVID-19 illnesses are mild, it can result in severe and fatal illness, particularly in the elderly and among those with severe underlying health conditions. Because it is a new virus, researchers and health workers across the country and Federal and State agencies are working hard to better understand the virus, how to control its spread and how to treat those infected. Many restrictions on travel, dining and social gathering have been put in place across the region. However, food is considered a critical need and food producers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers are considered essential in this epidemic.

According to the FDA , there is no indication that this virus has spread via food.

According to the FDA , there is no indication that this virus has spread via food.

Currently, most Delaware produce growers are preparing for the growing season, doing field preparation, planting in the field and greenhouse, ordering supplies, applying fertilizer and lime and other farm activities. However, greehouse growers, hydroponic farms and high tunnel producers of early crops are currently selling to wholesale channels and to the public. Within 4 weeks, harvest of the first produce from the field will begin with asparagus and strawberries.

According to the FDA , there is no indication that this virus has spread via food. Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.

 

What Should Growers Do?
 

  • Stay Away if Sick –Make sure employees stay home if they feel sick and send them home if they develop symptoms at work. Consider posting signs asking customers not to shop at your farm stand if they have symptoms.

  • Practice Social Distancing – By putting a bit more space between you and others you can reduce your chances of getting ill. This might mean limiting or prohibiting farm visitors or reducing the number of off-farm meetings you attend in person. Avoid shaking hands and other physical contact.

  • Minimize the Number of Touches – Consider changes in your policies and operations that minimize the number of times produce, packaging and containers ares touched by different people. This may include workers, distributors and customers.

  • Wash Your Hands – Reinforce the importance of washing hands well when arriving at work, when changing tasks (e.g. moving from office work to wash/pack), before and after eating, after using the bathroom, before putting on gloves when working with produce and after contact with animals. Soap + water + 20 seconds or more are needed to scrub all surfaces of your hands and fingers thoroughly. Then, dispose of paper towels in a covered, lined trash container.

  • Cleaning, Sanitizing and Drying – The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, can survive on surfaces for many hours. While transmission through produce has not been found, it is a good policy to review, improve and reinforce your standard operating procedures for cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and drying any food contact surfaces, food handling equipment, bins and tools. Sales facilities should be routinely disinfected. The EPA has provided a list of disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. Very few of these products are common on the farm and may be hard to find. If you are currently using a sanitizer as part of a standard cleaning and sanitizing procedure for hard surfaces on your farm, continue doing so. Consider reviewing the label for that product and using it for disinfection of specific high-touch surfaces if applicable. You can also follow the CDC guidance and use a mixture of bleach and water (5 tbsp / gallon or 4 tsp / quart). EXAMPLE: Reviewing the label for Ultra Clorox(R) Brand Regular Bleach (alternate name, “Clorox Germicidal Bleach”), a 6.0% sodium hypochlorite product, we note that this product is labeled as effective against human coronavirus (p.35 revised). We also note that the concentration used for disinfection of hard, nonporous surfaces (p. 14 and 22 of PDF) is 2700 ppm (¾ cup per gallon of water) available chlorine compared to the lower rate used for sanitizing (p. 14 of PDF) of 200 ppm (1 tbsp per 1 gallon of water). The effectiveness of chlorine depends on the pH of water.

  • Plan for Change – Many produce farms are lean operations run by one or two managers and a minimal crew. Have a plan for if you become severely ill. Plan on how to handle reductions in workforce due to illness. More business and labor planning guidance is available at the Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development site and at the Penn State Readyag site.

 

What Should Markets and Farmers Markets Do?
 

  • Everything Above – Growers, retail food market owners and farmers market managers should do all the things above. All markets should have access to handwashing.

  • Communicate with your Customers – Consider reaching out to your customers and recommend they stay home if they are ill. Inform your customers about any changes in your hours or policies.

  • Consider Alternative Delivery – Some markets are taking this opportunity to launch pre-ordering and electronic payment options to enable social distancing at market. Some markets are moving to a drive-through pickup option.

  • Reinforce the Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables – Be sure to promote the nutritional value of your products. But, keep in mind that promotion of your products should be within reason. Avoid making overly broad or unsupported health claims. Fresh produce contains many minerals and nutrients important for immune health which may reduce the severity and duration of an illness.

 

Some farmers markets have changed the way they do business to implement some of the best practices listed above. A North Carolina Farmers’ Market has communicated changes with market customers, practiced social distancing by rearranging the market layout, rounded prices for limited use of coins, running “tabs” for customers to minimize cash transactions, prohibited samples, prohibited tablecloths to ease sanitation and the added a hand washing station among other things.

Another Farmers’ Market has shifted to online ordering and pre-bagged orders from each farm that are combined into larger collective orders delivered to each customer via a drive-up system. The biggest decision was deciding that they’d actually continue to have the market. The new approach required the addition of an on-line ordering system (Google Forms for now), coordination among farms and some serious organization at the market. Orders are organized by last name and, pickups are scheduled by name. People don’t get out of their cars.

 

 

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Adapted from the University of Vermont web resource “Considerations for Fruit and Vegetable Growers Related to Coronavirus & COVID-19”, Updated 3/18/2020