Keeping the food chain safe during a pandemic

Azlan Othman

The world is facing an unprecedented threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many countries are following the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the introduction of physical distancing measures as one of the ways in which transmission of the disease can be reduced.

The application of these measures has resulted in the closure of many businesses, schools, and institutes of education, and restrictions on travel and social gatherings. For some people, working from home, teleworking, and online or Internet discussions and meetings are now normal practices.

Food industry personnel, however, do not have the opportunity to work from home and are required to continue to work in their usual workplaces.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has shared guidelines for food businesses. According to the FAO, keeping all workers in the food production and supply chains healthy and safe is critical to surviving the current pandemic. Maintaining the movement of food along the food chain is an essential function to which all stakeholders along the food chain need to contribute.

This is also required to maintain trust and consumer confidence in the safety and availability of food. It is highly unlikely that people can contract COVID-19 from food or food packaging. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and the primary transmission route is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact with respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

There is no evidence to date of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply.

The most recent advice from the WHO is that current evidence indicates that COVID-19 virus is transmitted during close contact through respiratory droplets (formed on coughing or sneezing). The virus can spread directly from person-to-person when a COVID-19 case coughs or sneezes, producing droplets that reach the nose, mouth, or eyes of another person.

Alternatively, as the respiratory droplets are too heavy to be airborne, they land on objects and surfaces surrounding the infected person. It is possible that someone may become infected by touching a contaminated surface, object, or the hand of an infected person and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes. This can happen, for instance, when touching door knobs or shaking hands and then touching the face.

It is imperative for the food industry to reinforce personal hygiene measures and provide refresher training on food hygiene principles to eliminate or reduce the risk of food surfaces and food packaging materials becoming contaminated with the virus from food workers.

Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, can be effective in reducing the spread of viruses and disease within the food industry, but only if used properly.

In addition, the food industry is strongly advised to introduce physical distancing and stringent hygiene and sanitation measures and promote frequent and effective handwashing and sanitation at each stage of food processing, manufacture and marketing.

These measures will protect staff from spreading COVID-19 among workers, maintain a healthy workforce, and detect and exclude infected food handlers and their immediate contacts from the workplace.

Staff working in food premises should be provided with written instructions and training on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Staff who are unwell or have symptoms of COVID-19 should not be at work and should be informed about how to contact medical professionals.

This is imperative because if an infected worker handles food it is possible that they could introduce virus to the food they are working on, or onto surfaces within the food business, by coughing and sneezing, or through hand contact. In addition, in some cases, infected people may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic and may not display any signs or symptoms of disease or may present with mild symptoms that are easily overlooked. Some infected people not yet displaying symptoms have been shown to be contagious and capable of spreading the virus.

This underscores the need for all personnel working in the food industry, regardless of their apparent health status, to practise personal hygiene and appropriately use PPE. Food businesses need to introduce a high level of security and staff management to maintain a disease-free working environment.

Speaking on the guidelines from the FAO, President of the Asean Food and Beverage Association Haji Halim bin Saim called on strict existing food safety requirements and guidelines for the public.

“The guidelines are not to make the food handlers’ lives difficult but to ensure that the consumers are safe and healthy. Surprise inspection should be done regularly,” he said.

In view of the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Sultanate and with the absence of the Ramadhan bazaar, the Ministry of Health will continue to monitor restaurants and food premises in promoting food safety and proper hygiene practices. This was highlighted by Minister of Health Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham bin Haji Jaafar during a press conference.

“Restaurants are being monitored during this pandemic, as some restaurants are doing take-away services,” said the minister, adding that the effort will also be extended to restaurants and vendors registered under the online platform introduced recently and will be monitored under the ministry’s Food Safety and Quality Control Division.