The outbreak of novel coronavirus or COVID-19 in Wuhan, China has taken the world by a storm. Since its first case was reported in December 2019, the virus has claimed more than 70,000 lives. In fact, more than a million cases have been reported worldwide and the numbers are only expected to rise in the coming weeks.
The much talked about virus hasn’t just impacted people’s health, it has hit economies too! In times of unprecedented crisis such as this, supermarkets, food processing units and restaurants (with limited services) have to be extra cautious with regards to food safety.
Although there hasn’t been enough scientific backing to prove that Covid 19 can be transmitted directly through food, we can barely ignore the human element associated with the three facilities in question. When it comes to humans handling food, things become more complex and that is why it is important to train and educate them about the nature of the virus, how it came into being and how it can potentially spread.
Ever since the pandemic began, supermarkets have been the busiest places. People literally throng them to stock up essentials. Since human contact is high, infection control becomes tricky.
If you think about end-to-end processes with supermarkets, right from the time of receiving the goods until the final transaction with the customer is done, there are numerous touch points that need to be checked. This includes the integrity of packaging, the temperature and a lot more. Moreover, it is not just the employees who contribute to the human factor, it is the customers, too. Considering the complex web of people who may enter the supermarket, the common touchpoints (such as trolley handles, food products, which people may touch) are relevantly higher than in any other facility.
Saudi Arabian grocery retailing company, Panda Supermarket - has always had stringent hygiene measures in place. Here’s enlisting a few:
- Daily cleaning of the entire shop floor pre-opening.
- Thermal scanning of all people (customers and employees) entering the facility.
- Regular disinfection of all trolleys after set intervals of time.
- Ongoing equipment and working surfaces cleaned and sanitised before and after use.
- Hand sanitising dispensers available for customers and employees.
- Food areas are cleaned and disinfected using food safe chemicals.
- No contact services are provided to ensure safety for staff and customers.
- Storage areas are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected everyday.
- Protective masks and gloves are available for the Panda Supermarket staff. This includes employees working at the fresh section - including laboratory, food preparation, and kitchen.
FOOD PROCESSING UNITS
When it comes to manufacturing units, there may not be as many human touch points as there would be for a supermarket or a restaurant. But, depending on the process involved, there may be more hygiene measures, which need to be implemented for storage, distribution, reprocessing of food, packaging and a lot more. The British food safety regulator, the Food Standards Agency has issued guidelines for food makers with the aim of ensuring worker safety and stemming person to person transmission of novel coronavirus. Here are a few additional measures manufacturing units can take in wake of Covid 19:
-Ensure social distancing as much as is reasonably possible.
-Ensure a distance of 2 meters between workstations.
-Factories must comply with excellent hygiene standards - ensure clear hand washing procedures, appropriate PPE and regular cleaning of work surfaces, machinery and equipment.
-Install hand sanitising dispensers.
-Educate the workforce.
-Re-evaluate how the operation is run.
-Evaluate how the supply chain is going to impact your manufacturing process. This involves a deep study on where your suppliers are from and what is happening in their country of origin.
-Get back up suppliers on board.
-Intensify disinfection and ensure employee safety.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.” However, that does not mean a person cannot contract or be exposed to the virus at a restaurant, which is after all a public area with many common touchpoints and diverse processes like defrosting, preparing, cooling, etc. Even though Municipalities across the middle east have temporarily shut down the restaurants, it doesn’t mean they don’t have to uphold stringent hygiene measures in their take-away services or once they reopen. Here are some key actions they must undertake when they restart:
How to operate your restaurant as a take-away?
-Review your new activities and identify possible hazards
-Ensure the correct temperatures of hot and cold food are maintained until handed over to the customer
-Consider how you will manage hot and cold food items ordered together
-Limit the range of menu items on offer
-Maintain a distance of 2 meters in food preparation centers.
-Limit the volume of orders to ensure the food can be prepared safely
-Ensure food packaging is suitable for contact with food.
-Practice social distancing
-Provide protective equipment to your staff
-Introduce no-contact delivery
-Constantly disinfect the delivery personnel’s gear
Restaurant delivery personnel must:
-Practice social distancing when picking up deliveries and passing them to customers
-Wear suitable, clean and protective clothing
-Maintain a high degree of personal cleanliness
-Sanitise hands before and after each delivery transaction
Best practices for restaurants to adopt once they reopen
1. Say NO to open buffets.
2. Use disposable cups and eating utensils serving food and beverages.
3. Restrict the number of meals served.
4. Limit the number of people allowed inside a restaurant.
5. Maintain a distance of at least two metres between tables.
6. Do not allow employees or customers with flu symptoms.
7. Clean and disinfect your entire facility after every 2 hours.
8. Provide appropriate PPE (gloves, masks, etc) to your employees.
9. Reduce operational hours.
10. Install hand sanitizers with more than 70% alcohol.
11. Get your employees to change their gloves frequently.
What food delivery companies can do?
Talabat has set an example of how food delivery companies can contribute their bit by taking appropriate precautions.
-They begin with equipping their delivery boys with appropriate masks and gloves.
-Before collecting the order, delivery personnel wash and sanitize their hands using an alcohol based sanitizer.
-The food delivery bags are sanitized and disinfected.
-The food, once collected, is placed safely inside the disinfected delivery bags.
Chemicals that are safe to use
The studies available show that alcohol based solvents, hydrogen peroxide based solvents and other chemicals that contain compounds like sodium hypochlorite and quaternary ammonium are effective. However, it is the nature of the cleaning agent coupled with contact time that determines the success of disinfection.
With proper training, disinfection measures, adherence to protocol and some common sense, the war of food handlers against Covid 19 can be won!