Food safety expert: how to keep premises safe during pandemic

A leading expert in food safety standards is calling for all relevant businesses in the food industry – restaurants, manufacturers, packaging companies, retailers and transport providers – to meet Australian and global food safety standards to help reassure consumers in the current pandemic. The call comes as the industry faces the challenge of quelling customer fears about the potential transmission of COVID-19 via food. 

Maidie Wood is a food safety expert at SAI Global, a provider of food safety certification and training, which has audited thousands of businesses to ensure they comply with industry regulations.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that coronavirus is transmitted through food. COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, which is spread almost exclusively through person-to-person, or person-to-surfaces-to person contact – as was the case with earlier strains, including MERS and SARS. On the other hand, food contamination risks are typically microbial,” said Wood.

“As we learn more about the virus, there may be a slim chance that COVID-19 does present some cross-contamination concerns. It is contracted by inhalation or a similar mechanism, such as breathing in infected droplets from another person’s cough. As a result, it might be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching the food or food package that has had the virus on it and then touching their mouth or nose. However, any trace of the virus would be destroyed by proper cooking.”

Although any food safety risks of the virus continue to be evaluated, Wood warns that it is extremely important that food businesses have hygiene systems in place that meet Australian standards, and where necessary, take additional measures to keep the risk levels low. “In times of increased pressure on businesses within food and packaging supply chains, it is imperative that correct hygiene, sanitisation, and pre-operating procedures are strictly adhered to. For business owners, excluding ill workers from your premises is also a necessary prevention measure.

“Although it’s a legal requirement that all food businesses in Australia are trained in food safety, more in-depth Food Safety Supervisor training, such as HACCP certification, should be considered during – or following – this challenging health and safety crisis. SAI Global encourages food manufacturers, retailers and food services to get certified to meet internationally recognised food safety standards such as SQF, FSSC, ISO 22000, BRCGS and IFS – which all incorporate HACCP – to enable them to improve their processes, increase efficiencies, and ultimately, communicate to their customers they have robust food management systems in place.”

 The five tips are:

1.       Ensure your team are aware of the COVID-19 situation and take it seriously. The scale of COVID-19 is unprecedented. Therefore, managers need to check in with staff regularly to review their welfare and address any concerns as quickly as possible. For instance, staff should be encouraged to be open about their symptoms if they suspect they’re unwell and express any concerns about their circumstances, such as job security. There is a risk that food handlers may continue to work while infectious if they believe their job security is threatened. The best way to monitor staff is to check their body temperature as this cannot be hidden.

2.       Review the social interaction of your workforce. In the current social distancing environment, separation of shifts will allow greater time for cleaning and sanitisation of equipment, services, or common dining areas. Food businesses should also consider minimising the number of staff in production areas and position them in all areas of the premises so that they are an appropriate distance apart. Minimising the overlapping of shifts or rosters as much as possible is also vital. 

3.       Ensure adequate sanitisation facilities with instructions are provided, so that food handlers thoroughly and frequently wash their hands. Though good hand hygiene is common practice among most food businesses, consider increasing it under the current circumstances – according to guidance from the Department of Health. Additional handwashing and sanitisation points should be set up throughout food businesses. Handwashing and then sanitisation should be considered as the new normal routine.

 4.       Supervise all areas in which food is exposed to ensure it is not contaminated. While COVID-19 can be destroyed by cooking, it can survive on surfaces, such as benches, for several days. If a food handler has been unwell, and there’s concern that a surface might be contaminated, all food packaging should be removed from that surface and effectively disposed of.

5.       Advise staff that they can refuse service to any customers who appear unwell, providing this meets the necessary standards and regulations. According to Australian food regulators, businesses have the right to refuse service to customers if they display notable COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever or coughing. The ability for food handlers to exclude patrons underpins a fundamental social responsibility measure outlined by the Australian Government Department of Health, which has demanded members of the public stay home while displaying any symptoms.

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