The significant role of produce workers and packaging versus COVID-19
Previously on The Produce News, I wrote an article entitled, Eliminating plastic can be risky, stressing, one of the most serious factors that can get out of control is contamination of the produce items.
Now we have a big challenge with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers are cautious of germs, and rightly so. They have become very suspicious of touching every item around them whether it be doorknobs, shopping cart handles, checkout counters, and especially picked over loose fruits and vegetables in the produce department, despite no current evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 by food.
The world is transitioning through a period of extreme anxiety and confusion. The coronavirus outbreak has created distress and panic that nobody has ever seen before and is changing lifestyles faster than the virus is leaving its nasty footprint.
Supermarket workers are out there on the front lines, still doing their jobs for their communities. By no means is this an easy task, and store employees are doing marvelously racing to satisfy the needs of their customers.
I talked to many produce managers and store employees out in the trenches about the roles they play during these challenging times and what they are seeing and experiencing:
“All our bagged apples are sold out. Loose apples have slowed down a lot. I think they don’t want to touch anything that others touch.” — Gavin
“I see customers coughing and touching their noses while they shop. It makes working near them uncomfortable when seeing it.” — Maria
“As a cashier, I come face to face with customers only a couple feet away for eight hours and worry that someone may be contagious. We’re all touching and handling some loose produce as it comes across the checkout counter.” — Kathy
“The biggest seller in my produce department is potatoes. They are flying out as fast as we put them on display. People mostly buy the bags and only the bulk potatoes when the bags are sold out. Bagged onions get sold out fast, too.” — Henry
Once again, this is where packaging comes into play in a positive way. It protects the produce and acts as a safety measure against contamination. Packaging keeps the produce isolated from outside invasion of microbes.
A totally bulk produce department may leave many shoppers hesitant to buy certain items in fear that others rummaged through them. Such items are bulk mushrooms, bunched greens, tomatoes, loose green beans, broccoli crowns and the like. All are easily open to absorb microbes from touch.
Consumers are going through a huge frightening experience with the coronavirus attack. They have always trusted our industry’s food safety protocol. But they still have questions that concern them when it comes to food.
Is the U.S. food supply safe? Will there be enough food to go around? Will the grocery stores be closing? Is it safe buying fresh produce? Should I worry when I see empty shelves in the stores?
Many of these worrisome questions can be answered on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration website. Just inform your customers to click on https://www.fda.gov/ and check out the information on food and the COVID-19. There are a lot of detailed explanations and tips that can be learned.
And keep those produce displays well stocked with plenty of bagged and packaged produce items. Shoppers are in a huge rush to get in and out of the stores in a hurry more now than ever before. It’s a chore for them at a time like today. They want to pick up a produce item fast and head to the long lines at the checkouts, then home. Packages of produce make that part of their shopping much easier.
In the meantime, thank you to all the workers throughout the food industry and especially to my produce friends. Thank you for showing up at work each day and for braving through these tough times. Your hard work is part of the way we will defeat it.
Ron Pelger is the owner of RonProCon, a produce industry advisory firm. He is also a produce industry merchandising director and a freelance writer. He can be contacted at 775-843-2394 or by e-mail at [email protected]