Sun | May 16, 2021

M.A. Hinchcliffe | COVID-19: Food safety precautions

Published:Thursday | January 28, 2021 | 12:15 AM

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the transmission of the novel coronavirus SARS-Cov-2 and is spread by the people who are infected by the virus. The measures for the prevention and control of the spread of the virus are being driven by public health, but it behoves us as a people to comply with the protocols, including wearing mask, frequent handwashing or sanitising, and maintaining social and physical distance.

Since the announcement of the pandemic (worldwide spread), it is also declared that there is no cure, so treatment is symptomatic. Now a vaccine is being rolled out amid some amount of controversy regarding availability and efficacy. Next is food and nutrition, which brings into play where food comes from – distribution, acquisition, preparation and consumption, and, of course, some myths about food as treatment and cure for COVID-19.

While food plays a role in disease prevention and control, food can also cause health issues, chief among which are food-borne illnesses as a result of germs causing food poisoning, viruses, bacteria and parasites. Food-borne illness can also be caused by contamination by harmful toxins and chemicals. This is the background against which COVID-19 and food safety are being explored in this article, although food is not (yet) being blamed for contributing to the spread of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness transmitted among human beings by droplets expelled by talking, sneezing and coughing. The droplets are further transmitted, it is believed, when they adhere to surfaces such as hands and questionably on hard surfaces. While there may be symptoms of illness caused by the coronavirus which manifest themselves like food-related ones, the fact remains that there is yet no reported incident of COVID-19 caused by food contaminated with the coronavirus. How then does food feature in the measures for infection prevention and control of the coronavirus? All paths lead back to people.

FOOD WORKPLACE PROTOCOLS

People are at all the touch points of food – from field and factory to table and in-between are storage, packaging and transportation; and finally, preparation, serving and consumption. The common thread running throughout the whole process is ‘people’, hence their responsibility for food safety in the age of the coronavirus. Food safety best practices cut across all the protocols for social/physical distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, sanitising and hygiene. Hence protocols must be developed for all aspects of food handling, such as retail food stores, supermarkets, markets, delivery services, catering, restaurants, cookshops, roadside food stalls, food production and processing settings. Whether these settings are animal or plant based, workers who are at the centre must ensure that workplace protocols are instituted and enforced.

STANDARDS: MONITORING AND CONTROL

Workplace protocols are of no use if they are not executed. First, company standards must have ownership either by an individual or a team. This will depend on the size of the business and the workforce. We have heard of incidents of the spread of the virus among workers in meat packaging plants in the United States. The reports spoke to sick workers reporting to work either by force or fear of losing pay. Other reports spoke to lack of physical distancing and wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE).

There are established guidelines for coronavirus and food safety published by PAHO/ WHO, FDA, CDC and, of course, our local public health guidelines. Protocols are not a ‘one size fits all’, they must be adapted to match each business requirements. However, as they relate to the workforce, they are basically similar.

While there is currently no evidence to suggest that handling or consuming food is associated with COVID-19, it must be remembered that the disease is spread mostly person-to-person through respiratory droplets when someone coughs, sneezes or talks. However, it is to be reminded that “touching a surface or object, including food or food packaging that may have the virus on it and then touching one’s mouth, nose or possibly eyes, can cause transmission of the virus, although this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” (CDC – Food Safety updated Aug 22, 2020).

It is therefore advisable that after shopping, handling food packages or preparing food, handwashing or sanitising is essential. Currently, there is no evidence that food is associated with spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. In all instances, food safety practices must be followed to reduce the risk of illness from common food-borne pathogens.

M.A. Hinchcliffe CD, JP, MSc, BA is the CEO and founder of Manpower and Maintenance Services Ltd Group. Email: ceo@manpowerja.com