Bird Flu Update – Message to Distributors: Be Alert and Get Ready

However, it should, and the IFDA Food Safety and Security Committee has stepped up to the plate to work with foodservice distributors to develop a foundational plan to be shared with the industry.

The committee hosted an all-day meeting here on Wednesday, June 7, to learn about how a human pandemic could occur, discuss some of the responsibilities of government and business, and look at the planning that one distributorship has developed and is freely sharing with the industry.

By the middle of the day the participants felt as though they were drinking from a fire hose. By the end of the day, the attendees felt confident that they had enough information to take action.

There are four major takeaways from the event. Scientists believe there will be an influenza pandemic, but when it will occur is unknown. The government will not protect society, businesses or citizens from the pandemic. The time to put into place a management plan to deal with this crisis is right now and an informed public has the potential to mitigate some of the potential devastating impact of an influenza pandemic. Foodservice distributors are seen as being part of the country's critical infrastructure and can be vital elements in providing societal stability in what could be a period of significant upheaval.

The time to put into place a management plan to deal with this crisis is right now.
By way of background, influenza is not new and we can expect the flu to hit as it always does around November and stay through March. This strain of influenza is known and a vaccine, which takes about three months to develop, will be available to the public this fall. (ID Report - Feb. 17A, Feb. 17B, April 21, May 5 and May 19 - and ID Access webnews have been covering bird flu for the past three years and aggressively since the beginning of this year.)

The H5N1 avian influenza is a new strain of virus and has the potential to meet all the criteria to cause a pandemic. As it appears today, it is not easily spread from human to human. However, Dr. Donna Garren, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs of the National Restaurant Association, explained that this virus has the ability to mutate so that person to person contact will spread the illness. No one knows when this will happen or if this will happen any time soon, but scientists believe that a pandemic is on the horizon. (Scientists are studying whether the recent fatal occurrences of bird flu in humans in Indonesia are in fact examples of its mutation. – ID)

The message is clear – be prepared. Well what does that mean?

WHAT IS UNKNOWN? IFDA's speakers revealed the fact that there were unknown and known factors to integrate into preparedness planning. The largest unknown that has the greatest reach is: our scientific and therefore medical community does not know what the mutation will look like. Because of this, there will be no vaccine until at least three months after the flu has presented itself as a human-centric infectious disease. Furthermore, given this first unknown there is no measure at this point to gauge its potential for casing infection.

Modeling and synthesizing information from prior pandemics highlight that the target population for illness is not the homebound elderly, but healthy individuals between 20 and 50 years of age, displaying a high degree of contagion.

An additional unknown is where the mutated virus will present itself. The educated guess puts it outside of the United States. Given how small our world has become through travel and global interdependencies, three months of human exposure to this strain of flu, if highly virulent, will be enough to cause a worldwide epidemic.

KNOWN – OUR GOVERNMENT IS DEVELOPING PLANS Information is key in preparedness planning. IFDA speakers addressed this issue and noted that the government on all levels is working to provide needed leadership to address a potential national disaster.

The Federal government has issued two publications and is working with its various departments and agencies (FDA, USDA, DoD, CDC, Homeland Security and so forth) to provide the rudiments for state and county governments' response. The state and local governments are deemed as on point and are to various degrees developing their individual plans to cope with a pandemic. Every state has had a summit on this issue.

An important takeaway is that foodservice distributors can proactively define their roles and absorb what thought leaders are doing to ensure a viable business during and post pandemic.
Both Lucy Caldwell, Northern Virginia public information officer, of the Virginia Department of Health, and Benita Boyer, district epidemiologist of the Virginia Department of Health, gave insights regarding the planning process under way in Virginia. Both the state and local counties are utilizing Pandemic Flu Advisory Committees composed of representatives from the business community, schools, utilities, universities, healthcare, law enforcement, legal etc. to devise an actionable plan.

An important takeaway from their comments is that foodservice distributors have the opportunity to proactively define their possible roles and at the same time absorb what other thought leaders are doing to ensure a viable business during and post pandemic. Having a place at the table may prove to be a good tactic to help those "in charge" properly understand and thereby value what foodservice distributors have contribute to the community.

GUESSING IMPACT AND DEVISING A PLAN It is "guestimated" that 40% of the workforce, either because of illness or because of fear, will select to not come to work. Hence a priority for all businesses is to identify tactics to maximize the ability to tap into their workforce.

Tommy Hart, program sales manager for ID Top 50 IFH Foodservice Distribution, Hickory NC, shared what his organization is doing to create an actionable company plan. Using the white paper put together by its parent organization, The Alex Lee Co., the IFH Pandemic Flu Taskforce, including team members from their quick response team, began its preparedness planning in February.

His presentation began with – think about the unthinkable. Taking his own advice, IFH initiated its planning with unbarred brainstorming.

They then methodically outlined the areas to be addressed and created a task checklist for each:

  • Human Resources
  • Procurement
  • Customer Relations
  • Sanitation
  • Security
  • Government & Other Organizations
  • Operations & Transportation
  • Non-Product Suppliers
  • Information Systems
  • Finance
  • Risk Assessment

    Hart echoed advice given by previous speakers, stating that it is the utmost of importance to test every aspect of the plan to make sure the company is prepared, know what to do, and are ready to pull the trigger when needed.

    Walking the seminar participants through some of his taskforce's thinking as it relates to human resources, first the team identified anticipated requirements and core needs. Hart noted that in this discussion they identified essential and non-essential functions. Anticipating driver shortages, they are considering streamlining the organization's hiring practices.

    Candidates for cross training were named. Their team identified human resources as an area where the workload may grow and devised tactics to deal with that.

    Their plan includes having some job functions performed at the homes of employees, like the customer service function. He noted that staggering the work hours of this group would allow them to operate from home without requiring additional servers to address off-site computer use.

    Hart stated the importance of identifying "trigger points" so that if "X" should happen then the appropriate action to address the circumstance would occur. The use of calling trees is one example of a tactic to address particular situations. Having mobile phones with out of state area codes was included in their thought process as options for addressing communication needs were aired.

    He pointed out that current policies would have to be reconsidered and that his legal advisors will be pulled in to weigh-in before new policies become a part of their actionable document.

    Hart stated one of the lynchpin items in his company's plan is to educate the total company regarding personal hygiene and best practices to stay healthy. Sanitation was discussed addressing all areas of the company, including sanitizing phones, laptops and selector voice activated equipment.

    Have some job functions performed at the homes of employees, like the customer service function.
    Because flu is transmitted by breathing droplets passed on through a cough or sneeze of an infected, individual social distancing was explored. The safe zone is estimated to be three feet outside of a cough or sneeze. Awareness and personal responsibility plus a policy that strongly encourages employees to stay home when sick are to be included in their plan.

    Hart spoke to the fact that there is much that we don't know including how the public will react. To protect his workforce they are considering painting over their trucks and taking their employees out of uniform to avoid ambushes. Having their working employees feel safe is one of the plan's priorities.

    WORK TO BE DONE At the end of the day, participants agreed there was a compelling need to get started in devising actionable plans. The seminar underscored the multitude of issues and the work to be completed.

    Not taking the threat of a potential pandemic lightly, IFDA is actively providing members with needed information, identifying key areas to attempt to influence government policies, and collaborating with other associations and organizations to ensure its members have the tools needed to prepare for the unknown.

    By early fall IFDA will present a document containing templates to assist its members with jumpstarting their planning processes. Being informed, on the alert and prepared will make the difference in dealing with the pandemic if it should occur.

    (It should be pointed out, as ID's editorial venues have reported, bird flu is a communicable disease which so far is affecting poultry. It's transmission from infected humans to other humans has not yet been confirmed nor has its occurrence in the United States. Furthermore, eating properly cooked influenza-infected poultry will not harm humans since generally-accepted cooking temperatures kill the bacteria.)

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