At a time when the HORECA sector has taken such a huge hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic the world over, it has become even more imperative that this industry understands the intricacies of the virus and how it can impact any food retail establishment.
Clean Middle East (in association with Boecker®) conducted a webinar on this very topic where the speakers were Hala Makhoul Ward, Group Food Safety Manager, Boecker® and Dr. Shabrinath Srikumar, Assistant Professor, Food, Nutrition and Health, CFA, UAE University. Here is an excerpt from the webinar.
The new concept of food safety
COVID-19 has changed the concept of food safety. Yet, food safety by itself is concerned with much more than COVID-19. We cannot contract COVID-19 through food, and that is a good thing for everyone alike. However, we are heading into a new era that we call ‘New Normal’. People are going out again; every facility is reopening. After a long paralysis marked by lockdowns, people are thrilled to go back to hotels and restaurants. But, we musn’t forget that the virus is still around. This means that the hospitality sector has to be careful. There are several aspects to worry about - the food handlers, the contractors, the suppliers, the guests, the surrounding areas, the highly touched surfaces and much more. In this case, certain guidelines and strategies have to be put in place and compliance to those is going to be the key to ensuring a seamless and safe guest experience.
Myths around COVID-19 and food
COVID-19 was unprecedented. It caught us unaware. Because it is a novel virus, nobody had much information about it. Where there is less or no information, there are myths.
Myth 1: COVID-19 spreads through food.
Fact: You cannot contract the virus through food. It does not even multiply inside food. It needs a living thing in order to multiply. In fact, if you are cooking the food at above 75 degrees (which is a prerequisite of food safety, you are destroying the virus.
Myth 2: Adding pepper, ginger or garlic to the food removes coronavirus.
Fact: Spices have no effect on the virus. Of course, eating healthy is encouraged but not for this reason.
Myth 3: Drinking lots of water flushes out Coronavirus.
Fact: There is no scientific evidence to prove this. Although drinking water is beneficial for the human body, it has no effect on treating coronavirus.
Myth 4: Coronavirus does not affect young people.
Fact: Young people are NOT completely immune to COVID-19, although the symptoms they feel may be light.
Myth 5: COVID-19 does not thrive in hot temperatures.
Fact: Very little is known about the virus and there is no such claim from any authentic organization.
Steps hotels and restaurants must take before opening their facilities
• Maintain a checklist
Most of the hotels and restaurants were closed during the lockdown. Some were barely operating through deliveries. So before opening up, they should have a preopening checklist. They need to go back to their kitchen and check every detail - the ventilation system, the freezer, the counters, the chillers, the temperature and surfaces. In a similar manner, the entire facility must be checked step by step before throwing it open to guests.
• Check for hazards
COVID-19 cannot be contracted through food. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t check for hazards. Keep a check on potential hazards - who is entering your facility, who is coming close to the food, are the food handlers adhering to your ‘new normal’ protocols?
• Test all the employees for COVID-19
Before you open your restaurant or hotel, make it a point to test all your employees for COVID-19.
• Train food handlers
The next step is to train all the food handlers. Educate them about what they need to do and what is the need to follow the new protocols. You should also keep a check on their PPE and focus on identification of symptoms.
• Set up a proper SOP for sanitation
Each facility should decide the process and duration of cleaning.
• Ensure social distancing
Social distancing is the key to the new normal. So ensure that there is appropriate distance between tables, between kitchen counters, for queues, etc.
• Appoint safety managers
Make these people responsible for maintaining the highest levels of sanitation in the front of house and back of house.
• Ensure compliance
After all the SOPs have been set, the last and final step is to make sure they are being adhered to. If that doesn't happen, everything else goes to waste.
Routine cleaning and disinfecting schedule
After the hotel or restaurant has opened up, the next step is to maintain disinfection. And for that, a strict schedule has to be followed. A cleaning schedule has always been a part of any facility. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequency of cleaning has to be changed. A hotel and restaurant, owing to their high footfall, has to be cleaned more frequently than before. Highly touched surfaces have to be cleaned every other hour to ensure proper disinfection. Another major factor that needs to be considered is the type of disinfectant being used.
In addition to this, these facilities need to have a trained crew which is responsible for its maintenance. Your responsibility is to ensure that this training is carried out properly so that they understand the importance of what they are doing. Next, the managers have to choose an appropriate sanitizer. They have to consider how effective it is and whether it is actually destroying the virus or not, whether the sanitizer is being applied for the said contact time.
Feedback and requests from the market
In facilities that already have a food safety management system, it is now becoming mandatory to have a COVID-19 plan.This includes how you are ensuring that your facility is COVID-19 free and what measures you take to make sure that it doesn’t become contaminated in the future. The market is witnessing a surge in requests for the COVID-19 contingency plans throughout the world, and the Middle East is no exception to that.
The front-of-house touchpoints
Each country has come up with a set of guidelines for the restaurants and hotels to follow. Here are a few:
• Let us start from receiving the guests - queuing is not allowed. They are also trying as much as possible to take online bookings to minimize the check-in time.
• At every entry point, you need to have sanitizers for the people to use. A hand sanitizer must be placed even inside the elevators.
• The menu should not be a physical menu anymore. Instead, a digital menu should be provided, where the guests can scan it to access its contents.
• Ample space should be maintained between the tables.
• Restaurants and hotels must only entertain a limited number of guests to ensure social distancing.
• The number of people at a table should be restricted to 4 or 5.
• The mode of payment should be made touchless.
The most important thing to be considered back of house is the health of the employees. COVID-19 is a virus, which transmits from human to human, so we have to be aware of the employee’s health. We have to educate them about the symptoms of COVID-19 and encourage them to adhere to safety protocols even when they are not at work. This is the most important factor and perhaps the most difficult.
The next thing is PPE. It’s imperative that food handlers wear face masks, gloves, hair nets, etc whenever they are in the facility because an employee may be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 and may unknowingly contaminate the food. Another thing to be taken care of is hand hygiene. All employees must be encouraged to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. When hand washing is not possible, they must be encouraged to use hand sanitizers instead.
Other than that, employees must be encouraged to cover their mouth while sneezing and coughing and wash their hands immediately after. These basic steps if taken, will go a long way in preventing contamination. It is also advisable to use UV technology to disinfect the facility. In fact, there are many alternate technologies that can be put to use to achieve back of house disinfection.
Current challenges involved in food safety across the HORECA sector
Food safety has always been a sensitive issue. Hence the challenges in maintaining food safety have not changed drastically before and after COVID-19. The biggest challenge is to convince people that COVID-19 cannot be contracted through food. And that can only be resolved by awareness.