A strain of the coronavirus imported from Europe is most likely to blame for the outbreak in Beijing, WHO believes
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The virus sequence seen in the recent outbreak in Beijing is most likely related to the European strain, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Dr. Michael Ryan, who is the WHO’s executive director of the Health Emergencies Program, said: “What it’s saying most likely is that the disease was probably imported from outside Beijing at some point.”
One CDC official said that while the virus strain is from Europe, it seems to be an older version of what is currently spreading across the continent.
More than 200 new cases of the virus have been reported in the Chinese capital since June 11. Officials are trying to clamp down on the outbreak as much as possible, testing 2.3 million people so far.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials have said the coronavirus sequence in the latest Beijing outbreak is most likely related to the European strain.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, WHO’s executive director of the Health Emergencies Program, Dr. Michael Ryan, said the outbreak in Beijing appears to be a human-to-human transmission and not another cross-species infection.
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“What it’s saying most likely is that the disease was probably imported from outside Beijing at some point,” Ryan said, adding that “establishing when that happened and how long the chain of transmission is important.”
CDC official Zhang Yong said that while the virus strain is from Europe, it seems to be an older version of what is currently spreading across the continent.
Zhang said of the data: “According to preliminary genomic and epidemiological study results, the virus is from Europe, but is different from the virus currently spreading in Europe. It’s older than the virus currently spreading in Europe.”
Experts believe that imported frozen foods used at the wholesale market could have been contaminated with the virus during packaging or transportation, according to Sky News.
Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told the Global Times: “In regard to the route of virus transmission into Beijing from Europe, if confirmed, it is likely the virus remained in imported frozen food where it lurked in dark and humid environment and then exposed to local visitors to the market,”
There were more than 200 new cases of the virus reported in the Chinese capital since June 11.
In our April cover story, we look at how processors are cranking up and shifting channels to feed a country staying at home – while wondering what comes next.
By Pan Demetrakakes, Senior Editor
Mar 31, 2020
How do you feed a sick nation?
That’s the question facing the American food processing industry, and its partners along the supply chain, during what is turning out to be an unprecedented national trauma. The “coronacrisis” is threatening disruptions to the labor pool, the supply chain and the entire U.S. economy on a scale that has rarely been seen – and, as of press time, there is no certainty when or where it will stop.
The stakes are almost unthinkably high. “Everyone is on this 24/7 in some way,” says a spokesperson for one food processor. “Keeping the food plants open is critical. Toilet paper will look like a day at the beach if people believe food availability is in jeopardy.”
No one is spared from concern about the coronavirus, and the COVID-19 disease that it causes. But the food and beverage industry is facing some unique difficulties. It is unquestionably vital; it usually requires employees to work in proximity on a plant floor; it produces and, especially, distributes according to finely tuned models that are difficult to adjust quickly.
Probably the most far-reaching effect of the coronacrisis, at least so far, is the need to avoid public gatherings. This has led to an unprecedented contraction of the restaurant and other hospitality sectors, reducing many locations to takeout or delivery only. For many food processors, the immediate effect is to switch supply efforts from foodservice to retail channels, as consumers are forced to eat at home.
Sourcing Impacted by Coronavirus
While putting together our April cover story, we also asked readers about R&D Trends for 2020. We were able to ask several questions about coronavirus and how it was impacting product development. The following chart was indicative of how processors were feeling about sourcing and the origins of their ingredients. To get the results of the complete R&D Survey when it is available, be sure to sign-up for an advance copy.
This is especially true with meat, says Derrell Peel, an extension livestock marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University. In his newsletter, Peel wrote, “For beef, there is immediate demand for more processing, packaging and shipping of beef for retail sale and less processing and shipping of meat through food service distribution channels.”
That’s what processors who supply both markets are doing. Tyson Foods and Sanderson Farms both switched resources into retail, with Sanderson considering, as of mid-March, converting two plants to the smaller-piece production and packaging needed for grocery stores. Perdue Farms has “shifted our total production slightly to accommodate the variation in demand, with an increase toward retail,” says spokesperson Diane Souder. Cargill had been producing in a ratio of 60% retail, 40% foodservice; by late March, it had shifted to 85% and 15%, respectively.
Bolthouse Farms, the vegetable packer/beverage maker sold off last year by Campbell Soup, reports a surge in retail orders. “We are working around the clock to fill these increased orders and have diverted resources and supply from our foodservice business to fulfill the increased demand from retail,” says CEO Jeff Dunn.
Across the board
The spike in retail, at least early in the crisis, has affected small processors as well.
Spinato’s Fine Foods, a small processor based in Tempe, Ariz., is ramping up retail production and considering adding a second shift.
“Foodservice has ground to a halt. The spike in retail has more than made up for that temporary dip,” says Keith Schroeder, CEO of High Road Craft Brands, an ice-cream processor based in Marietta, Ga., with annual sales of about $30 million.
Spinato’s Fine Foods, which started as a pizzeria chain in Tempe, Ariz., and established a retail division in 2010, has seen an increase of up to 30% in its retail business. “Brick-and-mortar has definitely increased,” says Todd Niezgodzki, vice president of sales. “We have seen an uptick in POs [purchase orders] just in the last four days, and some of those were even changed after they were sent.”
Andrew Lorenz, president of We R Food Safety!, a compliance consulting firm mostly for the meat industry, says some of his smaller clients are processing five times more hamburger: “Our small to midsize meat production facilities are really hitting it hard.”
Both pantry basics, like meat, milk and nonperishable center-store items, and comfort foods seem to be popular. Some of the biggest jumps in demand, by product category, came in:
Meat. Fresh and frozen meat sales rose 77% for the week of March 15 compared with last year, while deli meat was up 40%.
Milk. Long on the decline, liquid milk rose 32% for the week ending March 14.
Salty snacks. Potato chip sales were up 30% for the week ending March 14 according to Nielsen, while popcorn and pretzels were up about 47%.
The rise in retail demand was rooted, at least initially, in two overwhelming consumer fears: that they would be forced to self-quarantine (or have quarantines imposed upon them) and be unable to shop for food, and that commodities would start running out. The situation led to images of bare supermarket shelves – something that most Americans hadn’t ever seen.
Processors and retailers alike were quick to assure the public that there was plenty of food available, and that the problem was simply that consumers were buying more than they needed.
“As long as customers just buy what they need and don’t hoard, there will be no problems at all – there’s plenty of food in the supply chain,” Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen told USA Today. FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn pleaded with Americans on March 17 to buy only enough food to last a week.
Peter Bolstorff, executive vice president with the Assn. for Supply Chain Management, also attributes stocking problems to a surge in panic buying. He says the grocery supply chain is normally robust, with replenishment systems based on history-based forecasts.
“When you get a run on products, a spike based on some collective reason like paranoia, you’re going to get immediate replenishment challenges,” Bolstorff says. “But if the spike is not sustained – meaning, it’s for maybe three days at a time, and then everybody wakes up and realizes ‘now I have enough’ – the supply chains for the grocery systems are mature enough where they’re going to, over time, replenish themselves.”
However, there are indications that the food supply chain may have been done in, at least temporarily, by its own efficiency. For more than a decade, there was a general imperative to slim down supply chains of all kinds, reducing inventory as much as possible. Food retailers took to this trend enthusiastically, allowing them to pare down stocks in back rooms and warehouses.
But both processors and retailers found this just-in-time strategy incapable of handling the surge in demand touched off by coronavirus. General Mills and other major manufacturers started bypassing their own warehouses in favor of shipping directly to wholesalers or trade customers’ warehouses. Grocers have been abandoning algorithms that have guided – and, in some cases, automatically placed – purchase orders in favor of getting on the phone and arranging purchases with suppliers.
“Just-in-time purchasing has been thrown out the window,” Dave Hirz, CEO of grocery chain Smart & Final, told the Wall Street Journal.
Retailers and CPG manufacturers have an opportunity to become trusted support for consumers confined to their homes.
Center-store has seen a revival as quarantine reintroduces consumers to shelf-stable categories and brands. Retailers and CPG manufacturers should help shoppers make the most of these products.
There will be a greater shift to online purchasing of consumer products, with click and collect at grocery, club, mass merchandisers and more.
Drug and convenience stores, which often populate suburban and urban areas, have an opportunity to provide more staple and essential fresh products for consumers staying closer to home.
With the tightening economy, consumers will increasingly look for the value proposition, zeroing in on lower-priced brands and/or private label products.
The coronacrisis has had profound implications for food industry operations, especially in labor.
For the most part, the good manufacturing practices that almost all food facilities have in place for sanitation should be sufficient to stop the coronavirus from spreading on food, equipment or packaging. The virus is as vulnerable to standard sanitizers as any other pathogen.
“The good thing for the food industry as a whole is that the sanitizers they use for normal, everyday cleaning are effective,” says Lorenz of We R Food Safety.
PepsiCo said in a statement on its website: “Based on industry guidelines from multiple health authorities, including the EFSA [European Food Safety Authority] and FDA, there is no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with the transmission of COVID-19 and that no recalls are anticipated if a person who works in a food or beverage production facility is diagnosed.
“Global health agencies have made clear the most effective thing we can do to fight COVID-19 is to practice good hygiene, and we are taking this advice very seriously,” the soda and snacks giant continued. “We have increased cleaning frequency at all facilities globally, re-emphasized the importance of proper handwashing, and we are expanding the availability of hand sanitizer in our facilities.”
But food plants will have to make adjustments. As is often the case, the trickiest variable is people.
Large food companies like Kraft Heinz and Cargill have made the same adjustments as most corporations, such as telling whomever can work from home to do so and limiting air travel to essential trips.
Atlantic Natural Foods, a processor of plant-based analogue seafood, closed its offices in San Diego and Baton Rouge, La., which performed management oversight and “backroom” business services, respectively; on-site operations are limited to its manufacturing facility in Nashville, N.C. (as well as a joint venture in Thailand).
But floor work isn’t something that can be done remotely. And that has unavoidable implications in the coronacrisis.
The virus can live up to three days on stainless steel, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Interestingly, the NIH says it lasts only four hours on copper, but copper in processing plants is mostly limited to occasional use in piping and certain kinds of vessels.) That means danger of transmission through equipment and other work surfaces.
The way to fight that, according to the FDA, is by having workers follow the same procedures that everyone is becoming familiar with: frequent hand washing and infrequent face-touching. Cornell University’s Institute for Food Safety takes it a step further, recommending that when disposable gloves are used, they should be changed, not only after touching any filth, but whenever workers touch their face or hair.
“Social distancing” is another important aspect of fighting the spread of coronavirus. Food plants may not be social venues, but workers often have to perform tasks in proximity of others. Lorenz says many companies are trying to impose as much isolation as possible on the plant floor.
“The people on a line are now a team. They don’t break with the rest of the people,” he says. “They isolate themselves in between breaks. The breakroom is cleaned and sanitized. Instead of doing it once a day like you normally do it, or once a shift, now you’re doing it between each break cycle.”
Doing so sometimes requires shifting workers around. Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, an agricultural co-op, has had to do so at its 120,000-sq.-ft. plant in Aurora.
“We immediately executed a plan to ramp up our sanitation staff following our quality SOPs for this type of contingency, [and] dedicated a minimum number of required staff to operate our plant while meeting all customer orders,” says Chief Operating Officer Greg Thorsgard.
Dealing with sickness
But the biggest potential labor problem, by far, is how to keep sick workers out of your plant – and what to do when you get one.
“The primary concern for them is employees,” Lorenz says. “How do you isolate, how do you separate employees? How do you identify who’s sick and who’s not sick? What do you do if somebody is sick?”
As of press time, cases of food plant employees testing positive for coronavirus have been rare, with only five widely reported: at an Anheuser-Busch plant in Cartersville, Ga., a Sanderson Farms plant in McComb, Miss., a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux City, S.D., a Perdue Farms plant in Perry, Ga., and two at Jel Sert’s West Chicago, Ill., plant. Of the processors contacted by Food Processing, only Hazelnut Growers acknowledged having an employee report symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and that person, immediately quarantined, soon recovered.
The crisis, however, is still in its initial stages. The biggest problem is that the virus’s incubation period averages five days, but can go as long as 14, meaning workers can be contagious for that long before they start experiencing symptoms. Even worse, it’s possible to transmit COVID-19 while remaining asymptomatic.
For these reasons, the perfunctory screening practices, such as monitoring forehead temperatures with remote scan guns, which some companies have started instituting, are unlikely to make much difference. Most are relying on self-reporting – urging employees to stay home if they have even a small suspicion they might be sick.
Companies can’t count on federal inspectors to help them, either. The FDA suspended most routine in-plant inspections on March 18, although “for-cause” inspections will still take place. (The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, on the other hand, says it will maintain routine in-plant inspection of meat, poultry and egg facilities.)
Hiring ramps up
Some companies, both big and small, are augmenting their labor forces to handle the increased demand. PepsiCo announced on March 23 that it plans to hire 6,000 more workers over the next several months, and Mondelēz International plans to hire 1,000 more. On the other end of the scale, Spinato’s Fine Foods has increased employees, brought in temps and is considering a second shift.
In some ways, smaller companies, especially if they use contract manufacturers, are in a better position to respond to the coronacrisis. Alkaline Water Co., a bottler with about $40 million in annual sales, uses seven or eight (the number varies seasonally) co-packers. So far, they have been able to make up absences with new hires, especially in the western U.S., says CEO Ricky Wright.
“It’s rectified itself in the West very quickly because obviously you’ve got a lot of closings of other types of businesses in the hospitality arena,” Wright says.
That same dynamic ensures that Alkaline Water will be able to get co-packers to ramp up production, which it probably will need; demand for March was up 70% over the previous year (compared with a 46% seasonal bump in normal years).
“The smaller guys like me who have managed to find a number of different co-packers, I think are able to provide better than a lot of some of the guys who are in a single plant and they’re at max capacity,” Wright says. “We’re able to turn to our manufacturers and say, ‘Hey, look, I know you’re dropping some business out of your hospitality industry [customers]. We’ll fill that void.’”
Smaller manufacturers with their own plants also have an advantage, Lorenz says: They’re are more likely than larger plants to impose safety distancing on their workers. “The smaller to mid-sized operators are probably going to be in better shape in the long run, just because they’re able to isolate down more,” he says. “But if you’re bringing 2,000 employees into a facility, statistics say you’re going to get hit.”
Big or small, food processors are going to have to find a way to keep their employees motivated to come to work and, not to put too fine a point on it, risk their health to keep America fed.
There are signs of grumbling among food workers, in manufacturing as well as retail. A Perdue Farms plant in Kathleen, Ga., saw a brief wildcat walkout by about 50 workers on March 23 protesting what they alleged were unsanitary conditions, with one of them remarking to a local TV station, “We’re risking our life for chicken.”
Some companies are responding with extra incentives. J.M. Smucker Co. is paying workers a $1,500 bonus; JBS SA, a $600 bonus to unionized workers; Conagra Brands, $500. Cargill, Campbell Soup and National Beef are giving hourly workers a $2 bump.
Supplies will be another potential sore point, especially when they originate overseas. Much of the raw ingredients for artificial sweeteners come from China, where the coronavirus originated – which presents a supply challenge. This is exacerbated by processor customers seeking to lock in supplies.
Apura Ingredients had several customers try to order 12 months of sweetener at once, says company president Nancy Hughes. She says Apura is working with that customer on a feasible delivery schedule, adding, “I don’t see these challenges going away anytime soon, as we are all learning how to deal with a pandemic.”
Packaging is another consideration. Wright says that Alkaline Water took steps to lock in an adequate supply of PET bottles, but sees it as a potential industrywide problem: “The biggest impediment to the industry come summertime will be the guys who have not been able to line up their containers.”
Food manufacturers make vital goods, for which demand is increasing at least in the short term, with relatively few labor disruptions. Even as the country suffers, that’s a good position to be in.
China Bans Trade, Consumption of Wild Animals to Counter Virus
February 24, 2020, 4:52 AM EST
China’s top legislature imposed a total ban on trade and consumption of wild animals, according to state-run China Central Television, a move that aims to curb activities that scientists say may have caused the deadly coronavirus to jump from animals to humans.
The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress took the decision at a meeting on Monday. The move should restrict trade and protect biodiversity, said Li Shuo, a senior global policy adviser at Greenpeace in Beijing
The coronavirus is proliferating globally, roiling markets and business, after originating in China where more than 77,000 people have been infected and over 2,500 have died.
The virus emerged in early December in Wuhan, an industrial city of 11 million in Hubei province, and early attention focused on a seafood market where live animals were sold, even though a third of the first 40 cases or so were found to have no link to it.
The process of ending trade and consumption “will be a challenging exercise,” said Li. Defining what wildlife is, whether Chinese medicines are included and what counts as illegal are some of the issues that need to be tackled, he said.
Seized pangolin scales in Hong Kong on Feb. 1.
Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images
According to the People’s Daily, wild animals covered by the ban include those that the Wildlife Protection Law and other laws prohibit people from eating, terrestrial wild animals that China protects as they have “important ecological, scientific and social value” as well as other terrestrial wild animals including those bred in captivity.
China issued a temporary ban on trading in wild animals shortly after the outbreak of the virus, and pressure has been mounting to make the prohibition permanent.
The existing Wildlife Protection Law bans the sale of food from endangered species, but doesn’t cover all wild animals. International animal rights groups have criticized the use of exotic animal parts such as tiger bones, bear gall and pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine.
Walk into a North American supermarket, and there are rows upon rows of frozen meat to choose from. In China, however, there’s a preference for freshly slaughtered pig, chicken and beef. And that desire for ‘warm meat’ is at the heart of a growing concern.
The recent Wuhan virus outbreak in China has been linked to a wet market in the eastern region of the country. The respiratory disease was transmitted from an animal to a human, but is now being passed between people.
But that’s just one virus spread through animals. And diseases such as avian flu in poultry and African Swine Flu (ASF) have been difficult to eradicate, as chickens and pigs are shipped from farmhouse to market on a daily basis.
Despite the risks, markets are central to Chinese life. While there are supermarkets stocked with frozen meat (which staff say is the same meat provided to vendors elsewhere), the customer flow is a trickle compared to the hustle and bustle of the so-called “wet markets.”
That’s partly because widespread refrigeration has only recently come to China. In some rural and lower income areas, fridges are still rare. Among older consumers who have grown up buying perishable food for daily use, shoppers say they can tell the quality of fresh meat by its smell, colour and texture.
Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary medicine at City University in Hong Kong, says while trust is high for shoppers at wet markets, many customers still see supermarkets as alien and suspect.
Socializing is also part of the market experience.“I actually believe that it is an important thing for the older generation to go to the wet market and have a chat,” said Pfeiffer.
As fresh meat continues to be associated with viral outbreaks, though, how sustainable the appetite for wet markets may be is unclear.