By Food Safety Magazine
What do Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, tornadoes across the Midwest and the Kamaishi earthquake in Japan all have in common? Food and water in affected areas may become contaminated with microbiological and chemical agents. Food safety risks are mainly linked to unsafe food storage, handling, preparation and ill employees. Processors with warehouses and retail stores that lack power cannot maintain proper temperature control. Foodservice facilities may find it impossible to cook the food they have during natural disasters due to a lack of facilities or fuel. Poor sanitation, including lack of safe water and toilet facilities, can compound these risks.
Food Safety Magazine asked U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists Martin A. Kalis, M.A., public health advisor, and Robert Blake, M.P.H., R.E.H.S., environmental health scientist, Alabama Department of Public Health’s Timothy N. Hatch, M.P.A., R.E.H.S., Debra Pandak, CSS-Dynamac, which assists federal, state and local agencies in responding to natural disasters, Rich Ritota, former program manager, Food and Drug Safety Program at the New Jersey Department of Health and current president of Food Safe Systems LLC, Mark S. Miklos, senior manager program compliance, National Restaurant Association, and former vice president of food safety & training for Waffle House Inc., and the Association of Food and Drug Officials’ Joe Corby how the food industry can best prepare for the next natural disaster before it strikes.
FSM: What are the main areas that require advance preparation to ensure safe food after a natural disaster hits? And who is responsible for carrying this out?
Kalis and Blake:
Foodservice providers will have immediate questions and concerns following any disaster. These will likely include: How do I protect my inventory? How do I maintain operations? How do I continue to serve healthy food? How do I continue the viability of my establishment?
The best way to address these and other concerns is before an emergency or disaster.
Prior to any emergency or disaster, regardless of whether it is natural or technological/human-caused, the community response partners need to understand their roles and responsibilities related to food safety based on applicable laws and established plans and guidance.
Contacting the local health department or food/restaurant inspection authority and asking about contingency planning is a good first step. If no planning has occurred for food protection after a disaster, food facilities can initiate these discussions with the health department.
Often, your professional organization, food/restaurant inspection authority or department of health makes an excellent advocate for initiating a multiagency/organization discussion to define roles and formulate custom plans for your community.
Around 30 states have Food Protection Task Forces comprising regulatory, academic and industry members, which are great resources for these types of planning issues.
Kalis and Blake:
Other types of local first responders that conduct emergency preparedness exercises may be willing to include foodservice facilities. Plans can address topics such as how to protect food during long power outages and how to address flooding or sewage backups, spills and other events that could affect water quality. Foodservice facility managers will likely wish to make a list of all questions and concerns prior to attending an emergency planning meeting.
Organizations that might have an interest in this type of planning would include restaurant and food safety-related professional organizations, emergency management and public health agencies, humanitarian and nonprofit organizations (e.g., American Red Cross, Salvation Army), private industry (e.g., food vendors) and other partners and stakeholders (e.g., utility companies, media, Homeland Security, National Guard and fire and police departments).
Collaborative emergency preparedness training and exercising before an emergency are critical as these activities define roles, introduce the participants to each other and identify areas needing improvement before an actual event. Also, mutual-aid agreements can be put into place to help define roles and responsibilities and provide assistance during any emergency event that may affect food and water safety.
Building these relationships between food protection stakeholders prior to a disaster/emergency is very important.
Advanced preparation is essential to the viability of any food establishment, from the supplier to the retailer. Plans should be done at the facility level with input from partners and regulators alike that factor in the needed elements for safe operation after a disaster. Some of the common areas are backup power, alternate water supply, innovative (and approved) methods of liquid and solid waste disposal and volunteer training on food safety. Just in Time (JIT) training for volunteer food handlers is a must. All too often, there are areas of food safety that are completely foreign to the novice food handler, and some are risk factors that must be taught in order to be fully understood. Private organizations do a fine job of day-to-day food safety training, but after a disaster, we do not have the time to conduct such, so JIT food safety training is always needed.
I’d add FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to the list. For example, FEMA ESF [Emergency Support Function] #11 addresses food safety during a disaster and the agencies involved. Also, the Red Cross has developed multiple “apps” that are available to individuals and companies that may require support in developing plans to respond to natural disasters and [that] support individuals and establishments post a disaster event at www.redcross.org/prepare/mobile-apps.
All disasters are unique and can present unique challenges to regulatory officials. Having a trained field staff with knowledge on preparing for natural disasters is government’s best hope for being able to respond effectively. Regulatory officials know their communities, the food establishments that exist there and industry representatives who can be called upon when a disaster strikes. Everyone is capable of playing a major role in disaster response and being familiar with all appropriate contacts is crucial. Handing out business cards during a disaster event is way too late.
What are the major challenges to advance preparation?
Kalis and Blake:
One major challenge is ensuring key parties understand roles and responsibilities during emergency response and recovery. Usually existing laws and plans need to be supplemented with specific food and water emergency response plans (as described above).
In addition, resources for any emergency planning and training often are challenging to obtain and must be prioritized with other important public health issues. Addressing these “surge capacity” issues is a key element during planning.
Finally, getting the necessary time commitment from community partners and stakeholders to prepare for potential food and water safety issues during emergencies and disasters can be quite challenging, especially if staff members are limited and competing priorities exist within a particular agency, organization, company or institution.
Planning and preparing for disasters is a foreign concept to many in the restaurant business. From the large chains down to the local restaurants, owners and operators have their hands full with day-to-day operations and attend to disasters as they happen. We have seen that advanced preparation is not only the smart thing to do but can lead to a strong business after a disaster. The faster an establishment can get back on their feet, the quicker they can begin preparing food for the community and those responding to assist in the recovery. Preparation is a smart business (and food safety) decision.
When developing plans, the potential influx of relief and recovery workers to an area impacted by a natural disaster should be considered. In some situations, a government agency may provide foodservice to feed relief workers, but not always. How to plan and be prepared for the pressure that operating commercial facilities will experience? Where will products be obtained to support operating food establishments? Those businesses that are able to operate will experience longer workdays and require extra staff to accommodate the increased number of people needing food.
Employing social media to access local government sites may provide the means for obtaining information following a natural disaster. Facilities should incorporate this into their planning and be familiar with local sites and the use of texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Social media also presents a means to communicate with employees regarding the status of foodservice provider(s) - texting may be one of the only ways to communicate early on following a natural disaster when Wi-Fi and Internet connections may be down. This may be the only way to coordinate with your resources, including vendors.
Communication and transportation can oftentimes become a major challenge for responding in an effective manner. Many times after a disaster, cellphones will not function and roads may not be passable. What happens then? Understanding what to do before a disaster strikes can resolve this concern. Incident Command System [ICS] usually addresses this for management officials, but field officials may need to operate out of their homes and conduct establishment assessments within their home communities until communications can be established.
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The Industry Perspective
The first step in any successful response by industry is building relationships with regulatory and emergency management agencies before the onset of a disaster. Industry and regulators are partners with a common purpose: to ensure the health of the dining public. This is true both during normal operations and when the chips are down after a disaster. A crisis is no time, however, to be meeting your regulators for the first time. Those relationships must be established ahead of time and nourished yearlong.
Developing a robust emergency operating plan for your establishment goes hand in hand with relationship building. Industry can look to several templates for guidelines on how to create such plans. An example is the recently revised Emergency Action Plan for Retail Food Establishments, produced by the Conference for Food Protection. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has published guidelines for reopening after a storm. Several states have created their own emergency action plans. Operators should check with their state health department - sooner rather than later - to see if such plans are available. Other states have amended or are considering amending their state food code by including the option whereby facilities having a preapproved emergency operations plan may stay open during an emergency.
All stakeholders should be involved in the creation of the emergency operating plan. Since operations are the key to a successful response, all store, multiunit and executive management levels need to be involved. Other departments, including purchasing, communications, IT, food safety/quality assurance and security, for example, should also participate. It is helpful to use a planning matrix that lists all functional departments horizontally and time horizons vertically. The grid should be populated with specific responsibilities owned by each stakeholder group: what to do during preseason preparation, once a storm is imminent, 48 to 24 hours before a storm and each stakeholder group’s responsibility after the storm hits.
Among the most significant challenges to robust advance preparation is creating and then sustaining the corporate will to invest in a stockpile of supplies and equipment that could be deployed at a moment’s notice. Other challenges are holding mock events to test readiness, keeping stakeholders accountable for fulfilling each of the responsibilities assigned to them on the planning matrix and proactively reaching out to state and local regulatory and emergency management to gain preapproval for emergency operating plans.
After a disaster has struck, there are high-profile and low-profile concerns. On the high side are such items as structural damage, flooding, fire and the loss of utilities. Loss of power can be overcome if generators have been prestaged and can be swung into service quickly, and if alternative sources of potable water have been arranged. On the low side (only in terms of being less visible in most cases to the media) is the plight of your employees whose individual stories are often overshadowed. The hourly food worker often lives paycheck to paycheck, which is a fragile state of affairs in the best of times. A prolonged closure of one of your establishments can be devastating to his or her livelihood. To this end, access to the disaster area is the key. Several states, including Florida and Delaware, are developing plans for critical services re-entry, and food establishments with well-developed and preapproved emergency operating plans may be included. This is a positive step and more jurisdictions should be urged to develop similar plans.
Curfews can also be problematic, as can pre-open inspections. Having preapproved emergency operating plans enables the regulatory authority to deploy its limited resources more wisely, starting with establishments that don’t have such plans, because delays in reopening hurt all stakeholders: customers, employees and first responders who also need a place to eat. Mississippi has developed an Emergency Food Safety Inspection Form to clear a food facility for reopening without a pre-opening inspection. Other states have similar protocols and, as an industry, we should encourage all jurisdictions to follow suit.
At the end of the day, good corporate citizens participate in the life of their community in good times and in bad. When we pull together as partners with a common purpose, we help control risk and mitigate the aftereffects of disaster. When industry plays a leading role in the process, communities return to normal quickly and everyone wins.
- Mark S. Miklos