WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The emergence of the COVID-19 virus, which temporarily left many supermarket shelves bare, has caused many consumers to take a second look at the availability of local foods. At present, national supply chains remain fully intact and there is no threat to transportation systems. Nonetheless, consumers have expressed concern about what would happen if national supply chains or transportation are interrupted. Can the North Country feed itself? Secondly, will the food be safe?
To begin with, research has shown that routine food safety practices are more than sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Unlike diseases such as the norovirus, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through food. Routine food safety practices – from the use of gloves to pasteurization — are fully sufficient to prevent the spread of this disease through food itself. Especially when considering that growers nationwide must follow recently enacted produce safety requirements, there is no evidence that raw produce such as lettuce or apples will transmit this disease. The USDA remains committed to ensuring that food safety inspections continue at slaughterhouses and processing plants nationwide, ensuring overall safety.
Could someone catch the virus from the surfaces of food packaging? Studies have shown that the virus can survive for up to 72-hours on plastic and 24-hours on cardboard. That said, it is unlikely that packages would be contaminated in the factory or during transportation. Again, food safety practices already require that workers take steps to avoid contamination of packaging materials. Warehousing and transportation times further increase the amount of time between production and usage, typically longer than 72-hours for most products. That said, if a disease carrier handles a milk carton or box of cereal in a grocery store, the virus could be transmitted if contact is made within these timeframes. For this reason, you should continue to take care when shopping – refraining from touching your face and washing your hands afterward.
As food is considered essential, New York state, among others, currently has no plans to shutter farmer’s markets. Cornell Cooperative Extension and other agencies are currently working with vendors at these markets to ensure that not only food safety practices are being administered, but also that vendors comply with the same hygiene practices being used in grocery stores and other retail establishments to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Examples include making handwashing facilities available to buyers and sellers, ensuring that individuals who handle cash wear gloves and do not handle produce or packaging, and not allowing customers to handle products until they are purchased. Some markets are looking at the possibility of pre-selling bags of local products online and either delivering them or making them available at pickup points throughout the community as a way to reduce crowd sizes.
Local produce growers are already planting their Spring crops and many still have stored crops from 2019 available. Similarly, as local orchards finish pruning their trees in preparation for the 2020 season, many still have apples in cold storage from last year. Farms selling shares of the 2020 crop through Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSAs) continue selling shares. A listing of growers is available in each county’s local food guide, available on your local Cooperative Extension website. In addition to produce, these guides can help you find other products such as eggs, honey, maple syrup, mushrooms, and value-added products such as jams.
The North Country has a plethora of people raising local beef and even products such as lamb or poultry. Consumers interested in purchasing meat from local farmers can check the Meat Suite website to find the farm nearest them (https://www.meatsuite.com/). Many farmers have frozen, pre-packaged meats available for you to pick up. Some will allow you to pay online, simplifying the transaction further. Others may even deliver to you.
Similarly, the local dairy industry is also well-situated to continue providing quality products throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. Dairy farmers, along with agencies such as the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and Cornell Cooperative Extension, have worked for many years to develop contingencies to ensure that cows continue to be milked on time and that deliveries of milk arrive fresh at your local markets every day.
Locally-made alcoholic beverages will also remain plentiful. Local wineries and breweries still have ample product manufactured in prior years available and will continue brewing in 2020. Many are putting systems in place that allow you to shop while minimizing contact and practicing social distancing. As an example, some are allowing customers to order bottles online and pick them up at the vineyard from the convenience of their car, avoiding the need to handle cash or enter the store.
–Amanda Root, CCE Jefferson County