June 7 was World Food Safety Day, as declared by the United Nations to draw global attention to the health consequences of contaminated food and water. In 2020, these concerns are probably more visible than in the past, as the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted consumer safety in many ways, including:

  • Industry Changes. Dine-in restaurants closed or modified their operations. Retailers were forced to change their preparation and offerings of ready-to-eat foods (as well as purchasing limits, hours for senior or vulnerable shoppers, social distancing protocols, and mask mandates). State and federal government officials declared workers at all points along the food supply chain to be “essential workers.” At the same time, many reports highlighted failures in worker safety resulting in some states seeing meat-processing plants as their top hotspots for positive test results and, worse, a significant number of deaths. By early May, the CDC had reported that at least 4,193 workers at 115 meat-packing plants across the country had tested positive, and 20 of those workers died (https://bit.ly/3ih2Ii9). Many of the spikes in positive test results also resulted in facilities being shut down.
  • Consumer Behavior Changes. Multiple consumer and media inquiries to academics, regulators, and other industry experts have centered on questions of food safety in terms of the food — and packaging — as vehicles for the virus. Many consumers observing mandatory and voluntary shelter-in-place orders ventured out of the home only for grocery shopping. Web-based shopping services for delivery or order and pick-up increased significantly. There was significant growth for small farms offering direct-to-consumer sales with online ordering and contact-free pick-up at the farm.
  • Regulatory Challenges. Industry and consumer behavior changes have impacted regulation at a time when regulatory resources have been stretched due to pandemic-related needs, worker shortages, and even furloughs. Regulatory technologies earmarked for compliance purposes are even being used for employee safety compliance. If anything, 2020 has shown that the consequences have broadened — not decreased.

Shortly before 2020’s World Food Safety Day, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced agreements in two unrelated food safety cases that involved the two largest criminal fines in U.S. history for failure to comply with federal food safety regulations.

In August, the DOJ announced that Chipotle Mexican Grill agreed to pay $25 million in fines to resolve charges related the 2015 and other single- and multi-state outbreaks of various pathogens between 2015 and 2018. Collectively, these outbreaks sickened more than 1,100 people. The federal charges related to violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Chipotle also agreed to a three-year deferred prosecution agreement that will allow it to avoid conviction if it complies with an improved food safety program.

A week later, the DOJ announced another agreement with Blue Bell Creameries. This agreement stems from the 2015 listeriosis outbreak, tied to ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, and frozen snacks sold by Blue Bell Creameries, based in Texas, that sickened at least ten in four states, killing three people. Blue Bell Creameries agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream products as well as to Civil False Claims Act allegations regarding ice cream products manufactured under insanitary conditions and sold to federal facilities. They will pay a criminal fine and forfeiture amount totaling $19.35 million – an amount that constitutes the second largest-ever amount paid in resolution of a food-safety matter. Although charges against Blue Bell’s former CEO and president, Paul Kruse, have since been dismissed because of lack of jurisdiction by the federal district court, the DOJ had charged him with seven felony counts related to his alleged efforts to conceal from customers what the company knew about the Listeria contamination. However, that may not signal the end of the situation.

World Food Safety Day witnessed the celebrating of the many Herculean efforts of essential workers around the globe to keep food safe. But today’s reality is that food quality and safety are not simply elements of retail or restaurants that represent the last mile of food’s long journey.

We must acknowledge that brand reputation includes those aspects controlled by company executives — every day, not just one day a year. At the same time, food shoppers’ behaviors, many of which may not ever return to the pre-pandemic practices, may forever redefine how consumers perceive trust and reputation behind the food they eat.

Darin Detwiler Assistant Dean, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University