COVID-19 Guidance for SQF Stakeholders

Updated as of April 6, 2020.

We are deeply concerned by the impact of COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus, and its potential effect on our SQF community. We understand that continuing restrictions on travel and general business continuity could limit our ability to conduct audits, and we urge you to remain in touch with us to help communicate and identify challenges. We are continuing to monitor the situation and will update you as new information becomes available.

What is Coronavirus and COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are part of a large family of viruses which is of concern as they cause illness in humans. They are named “coronavirus” from their appearance when seen using an electron microscope. These viruses cause respiratory illnesses such as the common cold. The most recently discovered coronavirus causes the illness COVID-19 which is considered a novel virus. This means that it is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified and is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness.

GFSI’s position on remote audits

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is a private organization that benchmark’s a certification program owner’s food safety standard. SQF is a food safety standard recognized by GFSI.

GFSI has updated their policy as of March 23rd and is allowing a one-time 6- month extension in certification, following the recommendations from the IAF Informative Document for Management of Extraordinary Events or Circumstances Affecting ABs, CABs and Certified Organization. In this document, GFSI does not authorize any type of non-standard type of auditing (i.e. remote, virtual, etc.). GFSI’s updated position can be found on their webpage.

SQF’s Policy on Extending Certifications

Please note, that this is our policy as it is written today; however, due to the fluidity of the situation an update could be made at any time.  We will keep all our stakeholders updated if changes do occur.

SQF has in place a means to defer certification due to extenuating circumstances and has updated it’s procedure on approving date change requests and references the IAF Informative Document for Management of Extraordinary Events or Circumstances Affecting ABs, CABs and Certified Organizations. SQF’s policy has been updated to align with GFSI and allows for a one-time 6-month extension.  It requires CBs to conduct a risk assessment to understand and determine if there is a need to in extend the certificate. This is also in line with other buyers and has been shared with our retailer members.

This policy includes a waiver to unannounced audits for all audits occurring on or before May 31st.

The SQF policy also requires the CB to assess the risk for continuing certification during an extraordinary event and request information from sites, as applicable. If you are seeking a delay in your site’s certification audit, then you should contact your CB to understand your options.

There seems to be many questions regarding the use of ‘remote auditing’, and it appears that term is being loosely interpreted. A more accurate term would be “remote activities,” which would include document reviews, interviews, etc. It is SQF’s policy that a risk assessment be conducted by the CB to understand the risk level to extending the certificate. If that risk assessment indicates that remote activities are to be conducted, then the CB should follow the outcomes of the risk assessment. Remote activities are to be used to maintain the site’s certification. If remote activities are conducted, this is not to be considered a replacement for the recertification audit.

Requesting Audit Extensions

Sites should reach out to their Certification Bodies to request for an extension. We have been informing our CB’s that they are responsible for communicating to the sites when certificate extensions are approved.  Please contact your site’s CB to determine how they are providing confirmation of the certificate extension request. They should also provide you with how they are communicating the approvals, which could include an e-mail, letter or updated certificate.

Below is a list of questions that we have received and heard from many of our stakeholders. FDA has a list of questions and answers posted to their website. These questions focus on those in the food industry and what they should be done to prevent and control COIVD-19. These are the recommendations of the US FDA and CDC, requirements in your country may differ.  Please check with your national authority.

FAQs

How does COVID-19 Spread?
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The virus is spread from person-to-person either through close contact such as when a person ill with COVID-19 coughs or sneezes within proximity to another person. The droplets land in the noses or mouths of people nearby and are inhaled into the lungs.

How do we prevent the spread of and exposure to COVID-19?
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To prevent exposure to the virus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization emphasizes the following preventive measures:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick

To protect others:

  • Stay home if you are sick
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect with bleach frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.

The US Food and Drug Administration emphasizes there has been no evidence of the transmission of the COVID-19 virus to humans from food or food packaging.

Fortunately, many of the food safety practices and employee hygiene practices address that are within your SQF food safety system already include preventive measures to protect and control the spread of COVID 19.

Information on how to prevent the exposure and spread of COVID 19 continues to be updated and it is important to follow the recommendations of the local regulatory and scientific authorities in your area. On April 3rd, the US Centers for Disease Control Prevention released an updated recommendation regarding the use of masks prevent the spread and exposure to the virus. The US Centers for Disease Control Prevention and the World Health Organization emphasizes the following preventive measures:

Updated April 3rd, CDC now recommends: For workers on farms, and in food production, processing, and retail settings who do not typically wear masks as part of their jobs, consider the following if you choose to use a cloth face covering to slow the spread of COVID-19:

NOTE:  The cloth face coverings recommended by CDC are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators.  Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

Can we use bleach wipes and disinfectant spray in the production area?
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Enhanced personal hygiene as well as facility, equipment, and utensil cleaning and sanitization procedures are strongly encouraged to be implemented and maintained during the COVID-19 public health crisis. Chemicals used in your site shall meet the requirements outlined in your sanitation plan and any additional chemicals such as aerosols or wipes would have to follow your chemical approval process and be evaluated for any hazards to the food.

CDC recommends routine cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label and does not recommend any additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning at this time.

We can practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces (for example: tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks) with EPA-registered disinfectants that are appropriate for the surface, following label instructions.

Please check with your chemical provider on what chemicals would be appropriate to use at your site that meets your food safety requirements.

What is SQF doing regarding auditor awareness to not contaminate the site?
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SQF recommends that the site contact their CB to understand the action they have taken to inform auditors of the best practices when visiting sites. Sites should inform visitors, including auditors, of their company policies regarding the containment of COVID-19.

How do I request an extension and how will the certificate extensions be communicated to my site?
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Sites should reach out to their Certification Bodies to request for an extension. We have been informing our CB’s that they are responsible for communicating to the sites when certificate extensions are approved.  Please contact your site’s CB to determine how they are providing confirmation of the certificate extension request. They should also provide you with how they are communicating the approvals, which could include an e-mail, letter or updated certificate.

Do I need to screen workers?
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The FDA FAQ page, referenced above, states that existing FDA regulations require that food manufacturing facilities and retail food establishments screen all workers to ensure they are healthy and do not carry communicable diseases, foodborne or otherwise (COVID-19). FDA expects these types of facilities to enhance their employee health screening procedures during this public health crisis.

What do I do if a person is infected with COVID-19?
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The FDA FAQ page, referenced above, states that if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality. Sick employees should follow the CDC’s What to do if you are sick with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Employers should consult with the local health department for additional guidance.

If a worker in my food processing facility/farm has tested positive for COVID-19, Should I close the facility? If so, for how long?
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The FDA FAQ page, referenced above, Food facilities need to follow protocols set by local and state health departments, which may vary depending on the amount of community spread of COVID-19 in a given area. These decisions will be based on public health risk of person-to-person transmission – not based on food safety.

Resources and References: