By Dr. Sylvain Charlebois
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new era of food safety, in which risks are managed and perceived differently. This crisis has proven that food safety measures must be adjusted, even if the science related to the virus is ambiguous. Based on the science we had at the time of the outbreak, there was no evidence to suggest that consuming food was a risk or associated with COVID. The immediate impact of the pandemic on the food supply chain were, and continue to be, logistical. The food safety risks were implicit given how we thought the virus arose and how little we knew about it. Measures created by government authorities caused logistical disruptions which continue to be resolved.
As such, both industry and regulators alike need to broaden their scope of analysis when looking at food safety risks. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the already pressing need for closer collaboration between animal and human health researchers, conservation practitioners, public health, and environmental authorities. Without these collaborations, food safety assessments and measures cannot be as efficient or as comprehensive. Most critically, food safety policies often discriminate against small businesses, expecting them to deal with bureaucracy in the same way as large companies. This typically results in increasing exposure to supply chain disruptions and rates of shutdowns. When new food safety measures are implemented, small and medium sized businesses are often left behind. Interventions are also overblown, and smaller companies can’t handle regulators’ demands. Canada’s listeria crisis is a good example. How smaller businesses are supported when new risks emerge will be critical for the sustainability of the agri-food sector.