WHO & FAO recommendations to ensure food safety in food businesses during COVID-19 pandemic

The food industries adopt Food Safety Management Systems based on the HACCP principles to manage food safety risks. However, during the current COVID situation, additional measures have to be integrated into the food chain. Recently WHO also provided interim guidelines, to ensure compliance with measures to protect and prevent food workers from contracting COVID-19. Aparna Kuna and A. Poshadri explain these guidelines here.

WHO guidelines for food safety

The world is currently facing an unprecedented threat from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, referred to as the COVID-19 virus. As the entire world is working from home, few sectors do not have the opportunity to work from home. One among those few sectors is the food industry, who continue to work in their workplace to ensure food production and supply chain logistics along the food chain. The food industries across adopt Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles to manage food safety risks and prevent food contamination. But during the current COVID situation, additional measures have to be integrated into the food chain so that adequate and safe food supplies are available for consumers. World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations have provided interim guidelines in April 2020, to ensure compliance with measures to protect and prevent food workers from contracting COVID-19, and to strengthen food hygiene and sanitation practices. The following are the guidelines to be adopted by food business operators in addition to the existing systems.

Avoid potential transmission of COVID-19 via food

There is no scientific evidence that people can contract COVID-19 from food or food packaging. However, few research studies evaluated the survival of the COVID-19 virus on different surfaces and reported the viability of the virus for up to 72 hours. But the research was conducted under controlled relative humidity and temperature and is not interpreted in the real-life environment. To avoid spreading of COVID-19 among workers, the food industry should reinforce personal hygiene measures through proper usage of personal protective equipment (PPE), to eliminate or reduce the risk of food surfaces and food packaging materials becoming contaminated with the virus. It is also important to introduce physical distancing and stringent hygiene and sanitation measures and promote frequent and effective handwashing and sanitation at each stage of food processing, manufacturing, and marketing. These measures will help maintain a healthy workforce and a safe food supply chain.

Create awareness of COVID-19 symptoms among workforce

WHO recommends that staff working in the food sector need to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19., ie. High fever, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing, and fatigue. Food business operators need to produce written guidance for staff on reporting such symptoms and on exclusion from work policies. The most important issue is for staff to be able to recognise symptoms early so that they can seek appropriate medical care and testing, and minimise the risk of infecting fellow workers and food.

Prevent the spread of COVID-19 by food workers in the work environment: Staff working in food premises should be provided with written instructions and training on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Good staff hygienic practices including proper hand hygiene; frequent use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers; good respiratory hygiene; frequent cleaning/disinfection of work surfaces and touch points; avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness have to be adapted by all the workforce.

Use of disposable gloves by food workers

Gloves may be used by food workers but must be changed frequently after carrying out non-food related activities, and hands must be washed between glove changes and when gloves are removed. Handwashing is a greater protective barrier to infection than wearing disposable gloves. Food businesses need to ensure that adequate sanitary facilities are provided and ensure that food workers thoroughly and frequently wash their hands. Food workers should avoid touching their mouth and eyes when wearing gloves. Hand sanitizers can be used as an additional measure but should not replace handwashing.

Maintain physical distancing in the work environment

Physical distancing is most crucial to help slow the spread of COVID-19, which can be achieved by minimising contact between potentially infected individuals and healthy individuals. All food businesses should follow physical distancing by maintaining at least 1 metre (3 feet) between fellow workers. In smaller food processing areas, employers have to put in place alternate measures to protect employees (Ex: the compulsory wearing of hygenic PPE). Few measures to adhere to physical distancing are: 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 anti-slip work shoes for staff; space out workstations, which may require a 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.

COVID-19 illness in the workplace

Staff who are feeling unwell should not report to work and seek medical advice. However, if a food worker becomes unwell in the workplace with typical symptoms of COVID-19, they should be moved to an area away from other people. The employer or employee should follow guidelines for reporting cases/suspect cases of COVID-19, and follow quarantine measures. All surfaces that the infected employee has come into contact with must be cleaned with alcohol-based sanitizers/surface disinfectants. If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 it is necessary to notify all close contacts of the infected employee so they too can take measures to minimise further risk of spread. A return to work policy for staff who have been infected and recovered from COVID-19 should be in place.

Transport and delivery of food ingredients and food products by food workers

The primary focus of all hygiene and sanitation measures implemented by food businesses apart from existing measures is to keep COVID-19 virus out of their businesses. Chances of COVID-2019 infection occurs only if an infected person enters or contaminate products or items that are brought into the premises. There are few precautionary measures to avoid this kind of contamination. Drivers and other staff delivering to food premises should not leave their vehicles during delivery. Drivers should use alcohol-based hand sanitizers before passing delivery documents to food premises staff. Disposable containers and packaging should be used to avoid the need for cleaning of any returns. In the case of reusable containers, appropriate hygiene and sanitation protocols should be implemented. Drivers delivering to food premises should be aware of the potential risks involved in contact transmission of COVID-19, through contaminated surfaces (steering wheels, door handles, mobile devices, etc) or shake hands with an infected person. Hence hand hygiene, in conjunction with physical distancing, is of paramount importance to avoid cross-contamination. Drivers also should be aware of physical distancing, personal cleanliness, and usage of PPE when picking up deliveries and passing deliveries to customers.

Sanitation and hygiene at retail food premises

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the food retail sector faces the greatest challenges in maintaining the highest standards of hygiene, protecting staff from the risk of infection, maintaining physical distancing when dealing with large numbers of customers, remaining open, and ensuring that adequate supplies of foods are available daily. Maintaining physical distancing in retail food premises is critical for reducing the risk of transmission of the disease. Practical measures that may be used by retailers include the following:

  • Regulate the numbers of customers who enter the retail store to avoid overcrowding;
  • Place signs at entry point requesting customers not to enter the shop if they are unwell or have COVID-19 symptoms;
  • Manage queue control consistent with physical distancing advice both inside and outside stores;
  • Provide hand sanitizers, spray disinfectants, and disposable paper towels at store entry points;
  • Use floor markings inside the retail store to facilitate compliance with the physical distancing, particularly in the most crowded areas, such as billing and serving counters;
  • Make regular announcements to remind customers to follow physical distancing advice and clean their hands regularly;
  • Introduce glass barriers at counters as an additional level of protection for staff;
  • Encourage the use of contactless payments;
  • If consumers bring their own shopping bags, advise them to clean their shopping bags before every use.
  • Minimise the risk of transmitting COVID-19 by frequent cleaning and disinfecting of high touch points (shopping trolleys, door handles, and weighing scales) in the retail premises. Actions to be taken at high touch points include providing wipes (or other forms of sanitisation) for customers to clean the handles of shopping trollies and baskets, or assigning staff to disinfect handles of shopping trollies after each use.

​Open food display in retail premises

There is currently no scientific evidence suggesting that food or open food displays (salad bars, fresh produce displays, bakery products, etc) are associated with the transmission of COVID-19 virus, although some consumers perceive it. Consumers should always wash fruits and vegetables with potable water before consumption. Both customers and staff should strictly observe good personal hygiene practices at all times around open food areas, by following the below practices.

  • Maintain frequent washing and sanitizing of all food contact surfaces and utensils;
  • Foodservice workers should frequently wash hands, and, if using gloves, they must be changed before and after preparing food;
  • Foodservice workers should frequently clean and sanitise counters, serving utensils and condiment containers;
  • Hand sanitizers should be made available for consumers on their way in and out of the food premises;
  • Bakery products should be placed in plastic/cellophane or paper packaging, rather than open display or selling them unwrapped from self-service counters. If loose bakery products are displayed in retail stores, they should be placed in glass display cabinets and placed in bags/boxes/plates using tongs when customers are served.

Staff canteens for food workers

Workplace canteens in essential frontline services, such as food processing and food retailing, need to remain open where there are no practical alternatives for staff to obtain food. High standards of the public health measures for handwashing and respiratory etiquette need to be maintained in work canteens. Operational standards issued by WHO and FAO in staff canteens include:

  • Maintaining a physical distance of at least 1 metre between an individual and other, including seating arrangements;
  • Staggering staff work and break times should be adapted to reduce staff numbers in a canteen at any one time;
  • Restricting non-essential physical contact as much as possible;
  • Visible notices for staff promoting hand hygiene and physical distancing;
  • Cleaning and disinfection procedures for equipment, premises, contact surfaces/ high touch points (e.g. countertops/tongs/service utensils/open self-service displays/door handles) should be displayed and followed.

WHO continues to monitor the situation closely for any changes that may affect this interim guidance. Should any factors change, the WHO will issue a further update. Otherwise, these interim guidelines will expire after 2 years ie., in April 2022.

Note: This article is a compilation from the original WHO Interim guidance document on “COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses” released by WHO on 7th April 2020.

 

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