When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it didn’t just stress global supply chains — it threatened the long-standing processes that kept the food supply safe. The rigorous protocols supervisors and employees had followed for years were suddenly thrown into chaos by labor constraints, tight deadlines, and an inability to slow down and plan a response to the crisis. The industry successfully adapted, but experts warn another pandemic is inevitable — and it may be worse than COVID-19. 

If the next virus is more contagious or difficult to neutralize, many of the protocols enacted during the last pandemic might not be enough. Manufacturers will be back to square one. To prepare, leaders must take a new approach to ​​training that goes beyond sanitation protocols. Pandemics represent an existential threat, so food training must focus on empowering workers to ensure operational continuity and standards compliance — regardless of the scale of the crisis. Here are three actions to keep in mind: 

1. Prioritize employee safety 

During a viral outbreak, your plant employees are just as much at risk of exposure as the consumers they are trying to protect from food contamination. Go above and beyond regulatory requirements to defend employee health and well-being during these dangerous times. A food safety and sanitation plan is useless without workers there to execute it. Honor the risk they’re taking and win their trust by prioritizing their safety. 

In your training program​, include detailed information about how operations will change and how workers will be protected on-site in the event of another pandemic. Teach sanitation techniques specifically designed to mitigate exposure risks — even if it slows down productivity. Highlight additional communication channels for reporting concerns, risks, and other issues to management. 

2. Plan for staffing restrictions 

In the next pandemic, social distancing mandates may be even more extreme than they were during COVID-19, creating a new wave of staffing challenges. Because it’s difficult to predict mitigation protocols in the future, employees need to understand how to scale their food safety responsibilities according to staff availability. In addition to training employees on sanitation procedures, outline how operations might shift in the event of another pandemic, including how employees can double-check their colleagues’ work. In a rapidly changing environment, miscommunication and missteps are hard to avoid, but teamwork can help ensure compliance. 

3. Empower employees to lead 

A culture of accountability is key to creating a safe food supply. In a crisis situation with so much potential for process breakdown, employees must adopt a mindset of owning the entire food safety and sanitation program. Beyond adherence, teach employees to monitor procedures and look for opportunities to improve efficiency. In a pandemic with limited staff, this could dramatically improve resilience and make it easier for workers to notice overlooked action items or compliance gaps. 

Since 2020, food and beverage manufacturers have undergone an incredible transformation. Employees’ mindsets about their role in food safety need to shift as well. As we’ve seen from the last few years, food safety takes more than strategy and well-planned systems — it requires expert execution from dedicated and well-trained workers. Without the right people and resources in place, food safety is compromised. 

AIB International’s updated food training courses can help any type of food and beverage manufacturer — and their employees — prepare for the next pandemic with confidence. For manufacturers that meet specific standards, the organization now offers Pandemic Prepared Certification to help enhance employee and customer trust. 

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