About half of the world’s population is now under strict orders to stay home in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. However, for some people, such as food industry personnel, working from home simply isn’t an option. A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) offers a set of guidelines and best practices in order to ensure that the food industry operates in a disease-free working environment.
Coronavirus doesn’t spread from the food itself, but people might get infected when delivering food or working alongside infected staff
According to the UN report, there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food or food packaging. This is a very controversial claim that needs to be put into proper context.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that first appeared in late 2019, in Wuhan, China. Its primary mode of transmission is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact with the respiratory droplets generated by an infected person when they cough or sneeze.
COVID-19 may also spread from fomites, which are basically any objects or surfaces that are contaminated with the virus. When touching a contaminated surface such as a doorknob, or when shaking hands, it is possible to become infected if we then also touch our own mouth, nose, or eyes.
Studies have also pointed out to virally loaded aerosol transmission of COVID-19, which can be generated when an infected person speaks towards a susceptible host. Although aerosol transmission hasn’t been verified, it is a plausible mode of transmission for the new coronavirus, underscoring the importance of using face masks whenever leaving the house.
An often-cited study suggests that SARS-CoV-2 can remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, up to four hours on copper, and up to 24 hours on cardboard.
However, these findings were made following research conducted under highly controlled laboratory conditions and their real-life application should be interpreted with caution.
The WHO released guidelines for food producers and processors. These do not apply for consumers
Regarding foodstuff and food packaging, WHO says there is no evidence to date that viruses that cause respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 can be spread this way. According to the WHO, coronaviruses simply cannot multiply in food as they need an animal or human host to replicate their genes.
But, what about the food packaging claim of no risk of transmission? Doesn’t that contradict the study mentioned earlier?
It’s important to take note that this a report addressed towards food manufacturers and processors. When the WHO says that there is no evidence of food packaging transmitting COVID-19, they are referring to merchandise in the manufacturer-transport-retail supply chain.
In other words, the WHO authors believe that the risk of contamination is very low for food on its way to the supermarket shelf. Inside the supermarket that’s a different thing. For instance, an infected person looking to shop food in the supermarket aisle might sneeze or cough over a can of food that you might pick up in your hands only minutes later.
The new WHO report goes on to suggest a set of best practices in order to ensure that food workers preparing and delivering food do so under safe conditions.
So, this is not a consumer report. It’s important to take this into consideration so that you might not think that you’re immune to infection when handling food bought from a retailer or packaged and delivered to your door.
First and foremost, the authors advise staff involved in food preparation to be aware of their own health. If a member of the staff feels sick or displays any symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties, fatigue), they should immediately self-isolate at home and stop coming to work.
Managers should have clear written instructions and offer training to staff on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Because some individuals infected with the novel coronavirus don’t appear sick at all (asymptomatic), it is important that all staff practice personal hygiene and the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Good staff hygienic practices include:
- proper hand hygiene – washing 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);
- frequent cleaning/disinfection of work surfaces and touchpoints such as door handles;
- avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing
Food workers should employ gloves but only when properly trained. Gloves need to be changed frequently and hands must be washed between glove changes and when gloves are removed. Food workers should avoid touching their mouth and eyes when wearing gloves.
Disposable gloves should not be used as a substitute for handwashing. Gloves can become contaminated with the coronavirus in the same way as bare hands. Managers should make this clear to workers who might have a false sense of security when wearing gloves and not wash hands as frequently as required. Normal soap and running water are adequate for handwashing.
Physical distancing should apply in the restaurant and kitchen as well. The WHO guidelines suggest maintaining at least 1 meter (3 feet) between fellow workers. Some distancing guidelines in the food-processing environment include:
- stagger workstations on either side of processing lines so that food workers are not facing one another;
- provide PPE such as face masks, hair nets, disposable gloves, clean overalls, and slip reduction work shoes for staff. The use of PPE would be routine in high-risk areas of food premises that produce ready-to-eat and cooked foods. When staff are dressed in PPE it is possible to reduce distance between workers;
- space out workstations, which may require reduction in the speed of production lines;
- limit the number of staff in a food preparation area at any one time;
- organise staff into working groups or teams to facilitate reduced interaction between groups.
Finally, if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, all close contacts of the infected employee need to be notified. This includes any employee who was in face-to-face or physical (i.e. touching) contact with a confirmed case. Contacts need to be quarantined for 14 days from the last point of exposure to the confirmed case.
With regard to food delivery, the WHO states that drivers and other staff delivering food should use a hand sanitizer before passing delivery documents to food premises staff.
A food delivery staff may become infected when coming into contact with a client who might be sick or when touching a contaminated surface. This is why hand hygiene between deliveries is paramount, as well as physical distancing when picking up and passing deliveries to customers.