Corona virus disease spreads directly by human to human transmission, through respiratory droplets and indirectly through contaminated surfaces that contain the virus. The food borne transmission is a concern with every new emerging infection however there are no reports or any evidence of faecal-oral transmission and no reported case of Corona virus Disease (COVID-19) that has been linked to transmission by food contamination. The Viruses need to enter living cells in order to be able to replicate, however, unlike bacteria, they never replicate in food. In case of COVID 19, the main risk involved is human to human transmission during food handling. Current evidence shows corona viruses appear to be stable at low and freezing temperatures on food surfaces for a certain period of time, however food hygiene and good food safety practices can prevent their transmission through food. The best practice for food business operators and consumers is to maintain high standards of personal hygiene, the standard protocol of social distancing and limiting social contact, and detecting / isolating the infected persons from food handling operations. It is mandatory for all food businesses to implement Good Hygiene and Good Manufacturing Practices, to ensure food safety and hygiene in food establishments. Under the present circumstances due to COVID 19 pandemic, there is an urgent requirement for food industry to ensure compliance with measures to protect food handlers from contracting COVID-19, to prevent exposure to or transmission of the virus, and to strengthen the food hygiene and sanitation practices.
Food business owner shall ensure that, apart from Good Hygiene and Good Manufacturing Practices, food handlers, should be made aware about COVID-19 symptoms so that they are able to recognize the symptoms early and that they can seek appropriate medical care and testing, and to minimize the risk of infecting fellow workers. They are needed to be provided with training on risk factors, safe food handling, social distancing and other protective behaviors e.g., cough etiquette and wearing of face mask, hand washing with soap or using of alcohol-based hand rubs. Food business operator shall have a COVID-19 Screening Protocol in place to screen all personnel entering the premises. All employees/workers/visitors should be screened at entry point for symptoms of COVID-19 such as temperature, cough, cold, etc. Those with temperature more than 37.5 °C (99 °F) and or with flu like symptoms shall not be allowed to enter Food Establishment.
In case the food handlers is COVID 19 infected or is identified as the contact of the COVID 19 infected person, he /she should be not be allowed to enter Food Establishment. Regular monitoring, wearing mask and protective gears at all times should be ensured in the food establishment. The employees should maintain one meter of distance from each other and practice social distancing in the workplace. Food business operator shall ensure high hygiene standards, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Frequent use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, good respiratory hygiene (cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; dispose of tissues, and wash hands regularly). Frequent cleaning/disinfection of work surfaces and touch points such as door handles. Avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing. Proper hand hygiene protocols should be strictly followed. Food handlers shall wear face mask and clean protective clothing like full sleeves clothes/aprons, head gears, caps, gloves at all times while in the production area. The face cover should fit perfectly on face without leaving any gaps on mouth, nose and chin. The face covers should be changed every six hours or as soon as they get wet. Food handlers shall avoid touching their face, eyes, nose, etc. after removal of face cover, before washing their hands. They shall preferably not use personal jewellery, watches etc. Instruments like mobiles should be discouraged while at work place or should be frequently sanitized. Gloves shall be worn while handling prepared food or ready to eat food. During this time no other surface, equipment, utensils should be touched or no non-food related activities such as emptying bin, closing doors/windows, touching mobile phones, handling currency etc., are carried out. In such a case, the gloves shall be changed and suitably disposed off. Hands must be washed between glove change and when gloves are removed. Food handlers shall be trained on the correct method of using gloves and wearing gloves shall not be considered as a substitute for hand washing.
Respiratory hygiene is important to prevent COVID-19 spread at a workplace. Food handlers shall cover their mouth and nose with tissue while coughing or sneezing. The tissue shall be disposed off in a closed bin and hands shall be thoroughly washed and sanitized, before handling food. Use of fingerprint or biometric attendance shall be discontinued during the pandemic period in order to minimize cross infection through this common contact point and may be replaced with facial recognition or manual system ensuring minimal physical contact. Using each other’s phones, belongings, sharing of common stationery like pens, or other work tools and equipment, should be discouraged. The food premises, toilets, counters and equipment that came in contact with the infected person should be thoroughly cleaned with hot water and detergent and disinfected (with 0.1% hypochlorite sol. or an equivalent).
Social distancing aims, a minimum distance of one meter shall be maintained between two persons at all points in a food establishment. To implement social distancing, food businesses should:
- Limit the number of people in contact on a production floor or a kitchen or a shop, by creating physical barriers so that people in smaller spaces (3-4 employees in 10 ft areas as an example) can have barriers without hindering work, wherever possible.
- Reduce the speed of production lines to reduce the number of staff working on the production line and increase the gap between them.
- Review the shift arrangement and social interaction of the staff.
- Increase time between shifts/scatter break periods to minimize staff interaction.
This will also help in ensuring more time for cleaning and sanitation. Limit the number of people (staff, delivery drivers, customers) who can come into the food premises at any one time.- Use spacing measures (e.g. floor markers, stickers) at tills or queues, increase the gaps between workstations, seating arrangements, etc to ensure at least 1 meter gap is maintained between employees, customers and visitors. Prohibit sharing of lockers by employees and a gap of at least one meter is maintained by employees while using the lockers. For food deliveries, prefer leaving food packets outside the door or maintain a gap of one meter from the customer. Takeaways and food deliveries should be encouraged instead of dine-in options. Face-to-face meetings should be restricted as much as possible.
Shabir Ahmed Lone is Food Safety Officer