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Food Safety During And After COVID-19

Food Safety and Management
System Practitioner

Thursday, May 28, 2020

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there is no evidence COVID-19 can be transmitted by food. But we have all gotten a chuckle out of the social media memes with the dancing pall-bearers and individuals eating foods they touched with their gloved hands after touching surfaces such as trolleys. Aside from tickling our funny bones, these memes highlight the possibility of how indirectly COVID-19 is a food safety concern.

While pandemics are not a new phenomenon (H1N1 in 2009) there are few people today who would remember one on the scale of COVID-19. One thing is clear: Gaps in our industries such as vulnerability of the supply chain and lack of contingency planning have been exposed. The impact is far-reaching and must be considered as risks as we determine our new normal. If risk is not managed then the feared second or third wave will be actualised.

Jamaica is seeking to return to normalcy employing a trial period with attendant guidance: Churches reopened May 18 and some bars reopened May 19. Come June 1, people working from home since March are expected to return to their places of work.

Understandably, the hospitality and food service industry has been one of the most heavily impacted by the measures taken to prevent/control the spread of COVID-19. As food businesses look to reopen or extend operating hours they will have to consider factors such as reintegrating home-based/laid-off employees, new health and safety orders/requirements, how to protect the safety of employees and customers, and they must be flexible to adapt to challenges in the new normal.

Personal hygiene and the behaviour of employees and customers will be key to controlling indirect food safety risk. Social distancing is working and will need to be a part of the food business operating plan. Shifts can be used to limit the number of employees on premises. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can be used to prevent cross-contamination; therefore, face masks and gloves should be worn along with aprons or other suitable coverings. Proper hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent or halt the spread of food-borne illnesses; hence, workers and customers must be able to clean their hands by either washing for at least 20 seconds (preferred) or using a hand sanitiser.

Worker health procedures will need to be updated to include COVID-19 safety requirements such as temperature checks, hand washing and social distancing. It is also a good idea to conduct an initial telephone interview with workers coming back to work to assess if they are fit to return to work.

When restarting/reopening a food business during a pandemic, it cannot be business as usual. There must be additional parameters to include with your usual checks; these will ensure that you restart safely without creating a food safety risk. Basic food safety and hygiene standards must be known and maintained with emphasis placed on high contact areas.

Your cleaning and sanitation programme will also need to be updated to include COVID-19 safety requirements. A programme that includes the cleaning, rinsing and sanitising of hard surfaces and food contact surfaces is an important method to avoid cross-contamination. Hard surfaces such as countertops and table tops are to be cleaned with detergent and potable water, scrubbing if necessary to remove any organic matter. These should be rinsed with potable water to remove the cleaning agent. A declared and registered sanitising agent should be used by paying attention to the manufacturer's guide. Time and duration of sanitising agents are important for their effectiveness. Hint: Identify and sanitise frequently touched items/surfaces.

COVID-19 is here and by all accounts it will continue to be a part of our landscape; therefore, real and perceived risks during and after the pandemic must be managed. Food business operators need to have a food safety plan which includes risk assessment. The risk assessment plan is to be updated to include COVID-19 and risk mitigation strategies. Food safety and hygiene monitoring never stop.