The rise of COVID-19 has many Foodservice professionals concerned about the spread of the virus in food. Even though the basics of Food Safety remains highly important, our dedicated team of research professionals, have answered the latest Food Safety questions, in this COVID-19 Food Safety guideline. Please note that this is the Unilever International guideline, if the South African legislations become stricter and deviating from Unilever’s position as stated below these should be followed.
CAN CORONAVIRUS BE TRANSMITTED FROM COOKED FOOD? (FOR EXAMPLE, IF THE PERSON COUGHS ONTO A COLD SANDWICH, CAN IT LIVE ON BREAD?)
The virus is sensitive to high temperatures, therefore standard pasteurisation or cooking procedures are expected to inactivate the virus. The current Good Manufacturing Practice (GMPs) include production and (personal) hygiene measures to reduce the risk of microbial (including viral) contamination in the final product. It is essential that these are strictly applied to prevent contamination.
However, if an infected person coughed onto the product after cooking there would be a risk of transmitting the virus onto the food. The length of time the virus would be able to survive in the food would depend on the specific food characteristics like pH and storage temperature.
Survival of the infectious virus on dry surfaces under favourable conditions is expected to be max 5-6 days. Manufactured products with a low pH (i.e. maximum pH <4) would inactivate the virus, but wet products formulated with a pH 6-8 might support virus survival for an unknown length of time.
So far there has been no evidence of foodborne transmission for the current virus or viruses that caused similar outbreaks in the past (e.g. SARS-CoV). Infection transmission via the food route is therefore considered unlikely.
CORONAVIRUS CAN BE TRANSMITTED FROM SURFACE CONTACT; IS IT RISKY IF RAW-CONSUMED VEGETABLES AND FRUITS ARE CARRYING THE VIRUS ON IT? IS IT ENOUGH TO WASH THEM PROPERLY?
If the raw vegetable was handled by an infected person, it is at risk of being contaminated. Washing fruit and vegetables is not a control measure. Some viruses (if present) may be removed but not all. In general, the same applies for (pathogenic) microorganisms, some might be removed, but not all. If contaminated fruit and vegetables are consumed, there is a low risk of inhaling virus particles.
There is a possibility that virus-contaminated surfaces can cross contaminate any food, hands, etc. All surfaces must be cleaned and disinfected as normal and this is known to be most effective. The only recommended change is the frequency of cleaning and disinfection which is higher than normal. Proper and frequent cleaning and disinfection must always be in place to control all type of microorganisms (bacteria, moulds, yeasts, parasites, viruses, including Corona).
COULD WE AVOID THE RISK OF CORONAVIRUS BY HEATING OUR COOKED FOOD EVEN MORE?
Standard pasteurisation procedures are sufficient to inactivate COVID-19. It is also expected that the virus would be inactivated in those products that receive a heat treatment before consumption (e.g. addition of hot water or used during cooking procedures).
IF CORONAVIRUS CONTAMINATES PACKAGING/EQUIPMENT (CONTAINER, POUCH), CAN THIS BE TRANSMITTED TO FOOD BY CONTACT?
Survival of the virus on dry surfaces under favourable conditions is expected to be max 5-6 days. It could therefore in theory be transmitted. However, the current Unilever GMPs include production and hygiene measures (cleaning and disinfection) to reduce the risk of microbial (including viral) contamination in the final product. It is essential that these are strictly applied.
COVID-19 is thought to be spread mainly through respiratory droplets. So far there has been no evidence of foodborne transmission for the current virus or viruses that caused similar outbreaks in the past (e.g. SARS-CoV). Infection transmission via the food route is therefore considered very unlikely.
WHAT ARE THE ADDITIONAL MEASURES THAT THE KITCHEN STAFF SHOULD PAY ATTENTION TO APART FROM FOOD SAFETY?
- It is critical that food handlers known or suspected to be suffering from communicable illnesses with symptoms such as but not limited to: jaundice, diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, sore throat with fever, visibly infected skin lesions (boils, cuts or sores), discharges from the ear, eye or nose or excessive sneezing etc., MUST be prevented from handling food or materials which come into contact with food.
- Do not cough or sneeze in your hands.
- Wash hands regularly (i.e. before handling food, after handling raw food, after using the toilet, disposing of waste).
- Apply standard GMP cleaning and disinfection.
FINDING DISINFECTANTS IS VERY DIFFICULT IN THIS PERIOD. WHAT CAN THE KITCHEN STAFF WHO CANNOT FIND DISINFECTANT USE AS ALTERNATIVE FOR BOTH SURFACE AND PERSONAL CLEANING?
Common disinfectants such as Sodium Hypochlorite and Ethanol at relevant concentrations have been shown to be effective in inactivating Coronaviruses. Also, high temperatures are effective for surface cleaning (e.g. dishwasher). Concerning personal hygiene, handwashing with warm water and liquid soap should be sufficient.
GLOVES AND MASKS ARE ALSO VERY DIFFICULT TO FIND, WHAT ARE THEIR ALTERNATIVES?
Protective masks should only be used by symptomatic individuals or by healthy individuals looking after someone who is ill. There is a global shortage of masks, therefore they should be used wisely.
Provided that, as per Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), any operator presenting symptoms suggestive of an infectious disease is not allowed into the production facilities, and that the risk of consumer infection via consumer goods is considered low, it is NOT recommended to the operators in the factory to wear protective masks, unless specified in the GMPs for the specific production. Concerning the use of gloves; it is preferred to strictly follow hand/arm washing rules.
HOW CAN THE EQUIPMENT (SPOON ETC.) USED TO TASTE THE FOOD BE DISINFECTED?
The standard Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) cleaning and disinfection measures are believed to be sufficient to inactivate the COVID-19 virus. In general, the use of dishwashers is advised in foodservice outlets to ensure proper cleaning and disinfection.
HOW SHOULD THE TOOLS AND HOTBOXES WHERE FOOD IS TRANSPORTED BE STERILISED? CAN THE SMELL OF CHEMICALS PASS TO THE FOOD?
The standard GMP cleaning and disinfection measures are believed to be sufficient to inactivate the COVID-19 virus. Common disinfectants such as Sodium Hypochlorite and Ethanol at relevant concentrations have been shown to be effective in inactivating coronaviruses. Many cleaning and disinfection chemicals stipulate a final rinse with water to remove any chemical residue. There should be no chemical smell left.
WHAT SHOULD THE MIN/MAX TEMPERATURE BE DURING TRANSPORTATION SO THAT THE CORONAVIRUS DOES NOT REACH THE CONSUMERS WITH FOOD?
The likelihood of the Coronavirus reaching the consumer must not depend on the transportation temperature of the food. First of all, food handlers known or suspected to be suffering from communicable illnesses with symptoms such as but not limited to: jaundice, diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, sore throat with fever, visibly infected skin lesions (boils, cuts or sores), discharges from the ear, eye or nose or excessive sneezing etc.
MUST be prevented from handling the food or materials which come into contact with food. Additionally, any heating step equal to a standard pasteurisation (2 minutes with 70 °C at the coldest spot) is also expected to inactivate the virus.
The view from the South African Health Department is that “The spread of the disease is thought to happen mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.”