(May 22) CALGARY, Alberta — “Imagine if you woke up one morning to go to work, and you were it.”

That’s how Tom Byttynen, president of Thomas Fresh Inc., framed the threat an outbreak of avian influenza poses to the produce industry.

Byttynen moderated a May 15 workshop on businesses coping with a global pandemic during the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s 2008 convention and exposition May 14-16.

The avian flu is a threat to bird species in Asia, and cases of the disease being spread to humans have been recorded, panelist Patricia Huston, director of pandemic preparedness and emerging and infectious diseases for the Public Health Agency of Canada, told attendees via teleconference.

Because the infection is new to humans, people have no natural immunity, which could result in a widespread, worldwide illness if the virus becomes able to be transmitted from person to person, she said.

An event of that magnitude would strain government capacity, with emergency response officials limited by absenteeism, said panelist Patti Miller, executive director of the grains and oilseeds division for Ottawa-based Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

REMAINING OPERATIONAL

To ensure business continuity during such an event requires planning by businesses and government as well as personal preparedness by employees, Huston said.

Personal preparedness means stockpiling food, medication and comfort items, she said, adding that the anxiety an outbreak caused would result in staff absenteeism and supply-chain disruptions.

“Truckers have to run. Harvesters have to work,” Byttynen said.

Canadian border officials are reviewing prioritization of goods in case an outbreak or other emergency required restricting border activity, said panelist Stuart MacPherson, operations branch director of emergency preparedness and health and safety for Canada Border Services Agency.

The agency handles 13 million commercial releases and 95 million travelers crossing the nation’s borders each year, MacPherson said, adding that the border agency’s 13,000 employees oversee 1,200 points of entry into Canada, with 22 of Canada’s 119 land border crossings being the main focus.

Huston advised businesses to cross-train employees and consider alternative sourcing options, including domestic sourcing in case borders are closed, to improve their chances of staying in operation.

MacPherson emphasized the need for sound science in making public health decisions that would deeply affect trade and travel and that Canadian and U.S. officials are working to coordinate and harmonize preparedness protocols.

SAFETY PRACTICES

In addition to having plans in place to deal with staff and shipping during an outbreak, the panel recommended companies should maintain workplace safety and sanitation steps to help ensure a healthy workplace.

The H5N1 avian flu virus can survive on hard surfaces such as doorknobs or counter tops for two days but for only a few minutes on hands, Huston said.

Workplaces should reinforce among workers the importance of good hygiene (hand washing, use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer), sanitation (cleaning hard surfaces) and food preparation (cooking kills the H5N1 virus).