While essential businesses in the industry continue to operate to save the economy and provide people with necessities, the integrity of food chains must not be sacrificed for the sake of production—more so become a breeding ground for the coronavirus. Here, the World Health Organization (WHO) has provided a set of guidelines for food businesses in the time of COVID-19.
Can COVID-19 transfer to food?
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and thus its main transmission route is through person-to-person contact or direct contact with an infected person’s respiratory droplets (when sneezing or coughing). There is no evidence showing that the virus can be transmitted in food or food packaging. Although the respiratory droplets are too heavy to be airborne, it can spread by landing on objects and surfaces humans often touch.
Research in a controlled environment (in terms of humidity and temperature) reported that the virus can survive on plastic and stainless steel for 72 hours, on cardboard for 24 hours, and up to four hours on copper. The food industry is strongly advised to provide refresher training on food safety and personal hygiene as well as implement stricter health and safety protocols in the workplace.
Food workers include food handlers or anyone who touches open food as part of their work. The WHO recommends that workers stay home when feeling sick. The management should see to it that there’s written guidance when reporting COVID-19 symptoms or filing exemption from work. Most importantly, the staff should be aware of the common symptoms of the virus. These include the following:
- Fever (37.5 °C or above)
- Cough of any kind
- Shortness of breath
- Breathing difficulties
Preventing the spread of COVID-19
Programs, trainings and guidelines should be treated as necessary tools to combat the virus. The fact that a person can be asymptomatic puts the whole working environment in jeopardy. Below are some hygiene practices establishments must strictly follow:
- Proper hand hygiene (washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds)
- Use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers
- Good respiratory hygiene (covering mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, disposing used tissue)
- Frequent cleaning and disinfection of work surfaces and touch points
- Avoiding close contact when showing respiratory illness symptoms (such as sneezing or coughing)
Use of disposable gloves
Food workers can use disposable gloves but must also make it point to wash hands in between glove changes (done after carrying out non-food related activities such as opening doors and emptying trash bins) or when removing it as bacteria can build up on the surface of the hands. Disposable gloves are not a substitute for hand washing and must not be used in food work environments. Food businesses must emphasize that hand washing is the greater protective barrier to infection than disposable gloves, and see to it that sanitizing facilities are accessible to employees.
According to the WHO’s guidelines, at least one meter or three feet is the ideal distance between workers. Despite the difficulty to follow this in a working environment’s limited space, the safety of employees and customers should be an establishment’s top priority. Here are some practical measures to follow:
- Stagger workstations on either side of processing line so food workers do not face each other
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees as this can reduce distance between workers while safeguarding them from health risks
- Space out workstations (which may reduce the speed in production lines)
- Limit the number of staff in the food preparation area
- Organize staff into team to lessen interaction between groups
Illness in the workplace
When someone from the staff is feeling unwell, the employee must not report for work and must immediately notify the management. Take note of the following protocols in case an employee tests positive for COVID-19:
- In case an employee feels ill in the workplace, provide an area where they can be isolated behind a closed door and must be removed quickly from the food premise.
- While waiting for medical assistance, unwell employees must avoid contact with any person, surface and object and are advised to cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze. Used tissue must be disposed of in a bin with a lid. A separate bathroom must be used if available.
- Alcohol-based sanitizers or disinfectants must be used to decontaminate surfaces and areas the infected person has touched or was exposed to. All staff must wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after being in contact with someone showing symptoms of the infection.
- If an employee was confirmed to be positive of the infection, close contacts must be immediately notified. Examples of contact include:
- Those who had face-to-face or physical touch with the infected person
- Was within one meter with the confirmed case
- Cleaned bodily fluids without wearing the appropriate PPE
- Those in the same household or working group as the confirmed case
- Contacts must practice physical distancing and be quarantined for 14 days from the last exposure to the confirmed case.
- Staff who have not had close contact with the infected employee can still report for work and take the usual precautions. Closure of the workplace is not recommended.
- Secure a return to work policy for staff who have been infected with COVID-19. A confirmed case can be released from isolation once symptoms resolve and is able to present two negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that are at least 24 hours apart. If testing is not possible, WHO recommends that a confirmed patient can return to work 14 days after symptoms resolve.
Transport and delivery
The new normal thrives on delivery systems. While this method aims for contactless transactions, it’s still possible that the virus can enter a business premise through an infected person or contaminated items. Workers in charge of delivery must observe these guidelines to keep the establishment virus-free:
- Delivery staff must not leave their vehicles during delivery
- Before passing items to food workers, drivers should use a hand sanitizer. They should be equipped with alcohol-based sanitizer, disinfectant and paper towels.
- Disposable containers and packaging should be used to avoid cleaning of any returns. If reusable containers are needed, hygiene and sanitation protocols must be implemented.
- Aside from physical distancing, proper hand hygiene is necessary to steer clear of cross-contamination.
- Personal cleanliness and protective clothing must be maintained as well as frequent disinfection of transport containers. Food should be separated from other goods that may cause contamination.
Staff canteens (Only if necessary)
Workplace canteens are essential only if[ there are no other viable and practical alternatives. These operational standards will ensure the health and safety of workers in common areas such as canteens:
- Maintaining physical distancing of at least one meter, including seating arrangements
- Implementing an alternating schedule for staff so that not everyone is at the canteen at the same time
- Restricting non-essential physical contact
- Creating visible notices to remind staff about hand hygiene and physical distancing
- Cleaning and disinfecting of equipment, premises, surfaces and high touch points
Retail food premises
In this pandemic, the food retail sector is trying its best to protect the health of workers and customers, and provide for their employees and keep the store open. Maintaining physical distancing at the store level is critical to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Retailers must see to it that these measures are implemented in their establishments:
- Regulating the number of customers who enter the store
- Constantly reminding customers to not enter the shop if they feel unwell or have COVID-19 symptoms and to observe physical distancing and hand hygiene
- Managing queue control inside and outside the store while observing physical distancing
- Providing hand sanitizers, spray disinfectants, and disposable paper towels at entry points
- Using floor markings inside the retail store to facilitate physical distancing
- Introducing plexiglass barriers at tills and counters as an additional level of protection for staff
- Utilizing contactless payments
- Advising to consumers to clean their shopping bags before every use
- For high touch points:
- Providing wipes for customers or staff to clean the handle of trolleys and baskets
- Washing and sanitizing items such as ladles, tongs and condiment holders
- Keeping doors open to minimize contact with handles and door knobs
- For open food display:
- Washing and sanitizing of food contact surfaces and utensils
- Requiring food service workers to follow proper hand hygiene procedures and clean work areas, tools and equipment
- Making hand sanitizers available for customers upon entry and exit of the store premises
- Considering not openly displaying or selling unwrapped bakery products from self-service counters. These items should either placed in plastic, cellophane or paper packaging, or displayed in plexiglass cabinets then transferred in bags using tongs
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