( Brooke Park )

A number of online events are scheduled around the continuing COVID-19 crises, designed to educate and in one case, to celebrate the end of a harvest in what has been very unorthodox circumstances.

The following news items are a roundup of recent industry news focusing on the crisis and how companies are responding.

Alliance for Food and Farming

The Alliance for Food and Farming is hosting a web seminar designed for nutrition communicators and professionals such as dietitians on information learned about COVID-19.

“After four months of growing, harvesting and shipping fruits and vegetables during a pandemic, the agriculture community has learned a tremendous amount after overcoming the numerous challenges that have arisen during these uncertain times,” according to a news release. “But there is always room for further improvement, especially as the national landscape seems to change daily.”

The seminar is scheduled for 1-3 p.m. Central July 28. Registration is online. 

Elizabeth Shaw, health and wellness consultant and owner of Shaw Simple Swaps is the seminar panel moderator, and scheduled panelists are:

  • Lee-Ann Jaykus, William Neal Reynolds distinguished professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University;
  • Trevor Suslow, vice president of food safety at the Produce Marketing Association; and
  • Kay and Chris Filice, who represent the second and third generations, respectively at Filice Farms, a Hollister, Calif., based grower of fruits and vegetables.

They’ll speak about what they’ve learned in the past few months and discuss future challenges in agriculture as farmers work to provide an adequate supply of safe and healthy food during the pandemic, according to the release.

Bobalu Berries

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Oxnard, Calif.-based Bobalu Berries to cancel its annual BBQ marking the halfway point of California strawberry harvest.
Employees instead were treated to meals from food trucks sent to the company’s ranch. 

“There is a strong demand for the best employees, and we deeply appreciate the caliber of employees we have on staff,” RC Jones, managing partner, said in a news release. “Many have been with our family for more than 40 years, and we value their commitment to us.”

The company is determined to have its annual end-of-season party, and is already planning for the event. The company will raffle off two new cars along with other prizes.

The party will be a virtual event with “a sense of celebration with prizes, local radio station support, music and announcements for each employee to tune-in and hear the results from their location,” according to the release.

Collins Brothers/DS Smith

Collins Brothers Produce, Atlanta, is packing produce into boxes for food banks through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

David Collins, owner of the company, said the box itself is important, especially in the humid Deep South. The company, which received an $7.3 million initial contract and an extension through Aug. 31, is using DS Smith Greencoat boxes from its Columbia, S.C., plant. The boxes are treated with a water-resistant coating that allows them to maintain strength when wet, but are still recyclable, unlike wax-coated cartons, which are traditionally used to pack wet vegetables.

By the end of the second contract, Collins Brothers will have packed 750,000 of the boxes, according to a news release.

Collins Brothers is packing a mix of apples, oranges, potatoes, onions, cabbage, zucchini, peaches and cucumbers.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been deemed an essential business, remaining operational and supporting our customers and communities, and quickly changing our product mix to package products,” Troy Hagenbuch, specialty business unit general manager at DS Smith North America, said in the release.

The Food and Beverage Issue Alliance

The Food and Beverage Issue Alliance is hosting a web seminar on the Center for Disease Control’s plan for COVID-19 testing in the workplace.

Specifically, the seminar looks at the testing strategy in “high-density critical infrastructure workplaces” after a co-worker tests positive for COVID-19.

The seminar features panelists from the CDC, Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It is from 3-4 p.m. Eastern July 16. Registration is online.

Scheduled panelists for the web seminar are:

  • Megin Nichols, Enteric Zoonoses Activity Lead for the CDC;
  • Mike Grant, industrial hygienist and the CDC;
  • Johnathan Bearr, health scientist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration;
  • Rear Adm. David Goldman, chief medical officer of the FDA’s office of food policy and response; and
  • Mark Moorman, director of the FDA’s office of food safety.

The Food and Beverage Issue Alliance represents almost 60 associations, including the United Fresh Produce Association, the Food Industry Association (FMI), Produce Marketing Association, the U.S. Apple Association and the National Restaurant Association.

Stemilt Growers

A summer tradition at Stemilt Growers, an in-person cherry education experience, is yet another industry event that’s going digital because of the pandemic.

Stemilt, Wenatchee, Wash., will have its Stemilt U: Virtual Cherry College web seminar at 11 a.m. Pacific, July 22. Tate Mathison, director of sales, will lead the hour-long seminar, which will take participants through cherry harvest, packing and shipping, according to a news release.

“Since COVID-19 has put a pause on in-person events, we pivoted and are now sharing the next best thing through this Virtual Cherry College webinar,” Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager, said in the release. “It’s a great way to educate your entire produce or merchandising teams about where sweet cherries come from, how they are grown, and how to effectively market and merchandise cherries.”

Tate and his father, cherry grower Kyle Mathison, will talk about the growing environment through the packing process, and marketing director Roger

Pepperl will talk about best practices for marketing and merchandising cherries, followed by a question-and-answer session.

University of Florida

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension staff is working to understand barriers agriculture producers and processors are facing in keeping employees safe during the pandemic.

The UF-IFAS Extension team has created a survey to ask those who are working in food production and processing directly about the effects of the pandemic, according to a blog post by Ruth Borger on the UF-IFAS site.

“Agricultural workers are considered essential workers during this crisis and have been on the job from day one,” Christine Kelly-Begazo, with UF-IFAS Extension Indian River County, said in the blog post. “The information learned from this survey will directly impact what the training we provide this summer and fall.”

There are 10 questions in the survey.

All answers are confidential. Questions or comments may be directed to Christine Kelly-Begazo, UF-IFAS Indian River County Extension, at 772-226-4316


Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talked with food safety experts from his department and the Food and Drug Administration on a recent “Sonnyside of the Farm” podcast.

Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner, and Mindy Brashears, the USDA’s under secretary for food safety spoke about the safety of the food supply during the pandemic.

Perdue talks about the “just in time” supply chain model that makes for an efficient and cheap food system in the U.S., but with the loss of the foodservice sector, food grown for that channel had nowhere to go.

“When we saw those restaurants close, it created a major realignment there and we had to react nimbly and quickly realign the supply with the demand,” Perdue said. 

Yiannas said FDA suspended some routine inspections during the pandemic, but “mission critical” investigations and inspections into food recalls or foodborne illness outbreaks continued as they normally would.

“We’ve also implemented some new measures that I think hold great promise for the USDA and the FDA in the future,” Yiannas said on the podcast. “We’ve conducted some of what we refer to virtual remote monitoring inspections. When you think of the role technology might play in the future, there might be applications for this.”

Yiannas also spoke of the pandemic’s effect indirectly on the food supply; although coronavirus does not seem to be transmitted via food, the FDA has been involved in rules governing agricultural workers and how they can remain healthy during the outbreak.

Kari Slagel contributed to this roundup of articles.

For more coverage of the pandemic, see The Packer's COVID-19 webpage.

Related stories:

Protecting workers and feeding children during pandemic

Immunity, boxes and ports: COVID-19 news roundup

Avocados to walnuts: industry's response to pandemic