COVID-19 Impact on Local Retail Regulatory Food Safety Programs

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), representing the country’s nearly 3,000 local health departments, released new data documenting the impact of the COVID-19 response on important food safety programs that regulate, inspect, and license food service establishments, provide food safety education, and respond to outbreaks of food-borne illness. The COVID19 response has taken time, attention, and personnel away from all other unrelated health priorities, as already-underfunded and understaffed local health departments respond to the pandemic. In doing so, existing services are strained or paused, with health impacts that will ripple through communities. Food safety programs are no exception, with program impacts related to staff being pulled to the COVID-19 response and reduced services to comply with social distancing requirements.

Foodborne illness is a major preventable public health challenge that causes an estimate of nearly 48 million foodborne disease illnesses each year, with 128,000 requiring hospitalization, and resulting in 3,000 deaths in the United States. Despite retail food establishments being deemed as an essential business during the COVID-19 pandemic, many localities have greatly reduced or ceased their food safety program operations. Due to limited and decreased funding for public health, local health departments already face capacity and staffing restraints that affect the provision of essential public health services.5 For example, from 2008-2016, local health departments experienced a decline of more than 2,000 environmental health full-time equivalents. These staffing and resource restraints have a great impact in the quantity and quality of services provided. However, the COVID-19 response has exacerbated this deficiency.

Food safety programs that responded to our COVID-19 assessment noted that they have been experiencing varying levels of impact from COVID-19 to their routine operations, ranging from minimal impact to entire food safety programs being shut down, or large portions of staff being reassigned to COVID-19 response. As communities and businesses reopen, the impacts of these reductions in work may have significant impacts.

Additional impacts include:

  • Reduced or suspended routine retail food establishment inspections, often because staff are pulled away to focus on COVID-19 response, implementation of social distancing guidelines, or lack of personal protective equipment available to staff.
  • Cancellation of food safety classes and training for the food service workers due to implementing social distancing guidelines and lack of staff.
  • Delay in recruiting additional staff for open positions.

Despite the workforce and resource challenges, these programs are finding ways to adapt and fulfill their critical public health function while still maintaining social distancing. These include:

  • Conducting virtual inspections instead of on-site inspections for complaint investigations and pre-reopening of facilities.
  • Engaging and assisting restaurant operators to do more active managerial control to empower them to manage their own food safety.
  • Providing guidance on food safety operations through the phone or virtually.
  • For programs that ceased routine inspections, staff that have not been re-assigned to COVID-19 are improving their food safety program by working to conform to the FDA Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards.

The full report, including a list of resources to assist food safety programs during the COVID-19 response, can be found here.

Reports from the Field is a series highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on other public health priorities, including:

For more details on NACCHO’s response to COVID-19, see its COVID-19 information page.

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