The World Health Organization (WHO) and European Commission have published separate guidance about coronavirus and food safety.

The WHO interim guidance for food businesses said it was “highly unlikely” that people can contract COVID-19 from food or food packaging. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food as they need an animal or human host.

Earlier this month, the WHO held a webinar on the subject with Professor Alan Reilly, from University College of Dublin and former CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, and Peter Karim Ben Embarek, of the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN).

Research has evaluated survival of the virus on different surfaces and reported it can remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, up to four hours on copper, and up to 24 hours on cardboard. This research was under laboratory conditions with controlled relative humidity and temperature and should be interpreted with caution in the real-life environment, according to WHO.

“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,” the organization says.

Industry should have Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles to manage food safety risks and prevent contamination. Prerequisite programs include good hygiene practices, cleaning and sanitation, zoning of processing areas, supplier control, storage, distribution and transport, personnel hygiene and fitness to work.

Protecting workers
The WHO said personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, can be effective in reducing the spread of viruses and disease within the food sector, but only if used properly.

The agency advised industry 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.

Gloves may be used by workers but must be changed frequently and hands must be washed between glove changes and when they are removed. Gloves allow bacteria to build up on the surface of hands, so handwashing is important when they are removed to avoid contamination of food.

Disposable gloves should not be used as a substitute for handwashing, which is a greater protective barrier to infection. Wearing disposable gloves can give a false sense of security and may result in staff not washing hands as frequently as required.

Disposable containers and packaging should be used to avoid the need to clean any returns. For reusable containers, appropriate hygiene and sanitation protocols should be implemented.

If an infected worker handles food it is possible they could introduce virus to the food they are working on, or onto surfaces within the business, by coughing and sneezing, or through hand contact. Infected people may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic and may not display signs or symptoms of disease or have mild symptoms that are easily overlooked.

EC FAQ advice
The European Commission published a Q+A on COVID-19 and food safety covering production, food in shops and food at home. The European Community of Consumer Cooperatives (Euro Coop) and Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) provided input.

The document states businesses cannot ask for virus-free certification guarantees from suppliers for COVID-19 as there is no evidence that food poses a risk to public health.

No information is yet available on whether the virus can be present on food, survive and infect people. However, despite the scale of the pandemic, there has been no report of transmission via food. The document advised consumers to wash fruits and vegetables with clean water but added The virus does not survive cooking.

Among good hygiene practices required at all stages of food production, of most relevance are cleaning and disinfection of food facilities and equipment between production lots, avoidance of cross-contamination between food types and food at different stages of the process such as raw versus cooked food, personal hygiene such as washing and disinfecting hands, wearing gloves and masks where required, use of dedicated hygienic clothes and shoes, or staying away from work when feeling ill.

The Commission has already adopted a regulation allowing countries to carry out controls despite movement restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19. These measures apply for two months and will be reviewed based on information from member states.

Protocols to safeguard the health of employees include social distancing while at work, plexiglass when distance cannot be maintained, no contact between truck drivers and the food facility, more hand sanitizers, working in turns to ensure no more workers than strictly necessary in the facility, or where possible working from home.

There has been no report of transmission of the virus to animals via consumption of pet food or for feed for farmed animals and it is very unlikely the virus can be caught from handling pet food.

Wider picture
In Singapore, all people who sell and prepare food and drinks must wear masks or other protection beginning this week.

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) introduced the mandatory requirement for all those involved in the sale and preparation of food and drinks at all SFA-licensed sites to wear masks or other forms of physical barriers such as face shields to safeguard public health and prevent food contamination.

Operators who do not comply are liable for a penalty of up to $5,000 Singapore dollars (US$ 3,500) and/or suspension or cancellation of their licence.

Finally, the Arab Food Risk Analysis Network has also looked at the implications of COVID-19 on food safety and food businesses.

Eight experts from the network representing seven Arab countries produced a summary of the latest scientific knowledge on the virus and its relation with the food supply and production practices in Arabic.

A set of measures to enhance risk management protocols and food hygiene was also produced in Arabic, with emphasis on mitigating risks of transmission of the virus amongst food operators and maintaining food production as a critical sector during the global crisis.

AFRANet consists of scientists who have completed a program in food risk assessment designed by the Arab Food Safety Initiative for Trade Facilitation (SAFE) with Université Laval’s Food Risk Analysis Platform: PARERA. SAFE is involved in food safety capacity building funded by the Swedish International Development Agency and implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) with the League of Arab States.

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