Delegates on the opening day of an online conference have heard about the current challenges to food safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first day of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) event, which runs through Friday, featured speakers from UKHospitality, DEFRA, Just Eat, and the Cold Chain Federation.

Lisa Ackerley, a food safety adviser to UKHospitality, said in the early days of the pandemic some of the immediate challenges concerned what to do with stock.

“There was a lot of food wastage and attempts to give it away. Those agile businesses that had seen this coming and become retail and takeaways almost overnight meant new systems had to be organized and people were having to review food safety management systems and do new processes such as delivery,” she said.

Focus on allergens
Different issues came up when re-opening, according to Ackerley.

“Environmental health practitioners in private practice have written guidance for someone and immediately it’s all changed and out of date. Businesses, enforcement officers, consultants and EHPs are having to be agile and flexible. Most people want to do the right thing but they need to know what that is. It is important there is feedback to government when guidance comes out. It is a period of great uncertainty for customers, businesses and for enforcement officers and consultants.”

Ackerley said supply disruption and substitution was particularly problematic in the beginning and Brexit coming up could be another problem. Other issues include a reduced menu and choice for those with allergies, vegans and vegetarians.

“One of the problems for those with allergies is there is less dialogue going on between the business and customer because of the way we are trying to keep our distance and that makes it slightly difficult for customers with allergies and there may also be less experienced staff. We mustn’t forget allergens, they must be high on the agenda,” Ackerley said.

The “normal stuff” such as pest control, food safety, legionella and licensing still worry businesses and enforcement officers as things can go wrong that have nothing to do with COVID-19.

Food safety and biocides
Darryl Thomson, chairman of the UKHospitality Food Experts Group, said there is a lot to be done even when a business is closed.

“You have to continue with the due diligence, a lot of food would have been frozen and wouldn’t have ordinarily been frozen, pest control, maintenance and security still need to be managed,” he said.

Lisa Ackerley (top left), Barbara Bray (bottom left), Kate Thompson (top right) and Gideon Henderson

Thomson was asked about the impact of the pandemic on compliance.

“I asked this question of one of the large third-party auditors and they said they’ve not seen any noticeable change in observed non-conformances to date but what they did see early on was the safety management system were skewed towards COVID and left food safety a bit short, but that has been self-corrected. There have also been some improvements in cleaning standards.”

Speaking during a panel discussion, Ackerley said it was important not to forget about food safety in relation to reduction of biocides and she was in an UKHospitality group on this topic.

“We are looking at conflict between the need to reduce biocide residues in food because of pesticides and so on. Where we use chemicals such as chlorate in water that can cause a residue in food,” she said.

“This has stopped people using certain disinfectants which are critical for food safety, in particular for Listeria in short shelf life foods. It is this difficultly between what is a chemical contaminant and the conflict if you don’t have it there, of potentially having a food poisoning situation. We need to always keep balanced and not focus in on one issue as there are usually knock on effects.”

Just Eat’s approach
Steven Glass, global head of food safety at Just Eat, talked attendees through the impact of the lockdown in March and what has happened since then.

“It was severe, as more than a quarter of the restaurants we have on our marketplace went offline overnight. We saw close to 40 percent of orders drop off overnight. We did benefit from a V shaped recovery, by the end of that week we had bounced back to what we were two weeks before the lockdown,” he said.

“As a company this time last year we carried out 300,000 to 350,000 orders a day up and down the UK and that has leapt to about half a million orders per day. It sounds great and is but does come with huge challenges.”

Just Eat merged with Dutch food delivery firm earlier this year and is in the process of joining with U.S.-based GrubHub. Just Eat operates in 23 countries and has about 47,000 restaurants in the United Kingdom on its marketplace compared to 35,000 this time in 2019.

A four-step support plan for partners included advice on continuing to trade legally and safely, securing PPE, more than 1,000 free COVID training sessions through its food hygiene partner NSF and materials to use in restaurants and online to help customers keep their distance and stay safe.

Just Eat deliveries are carried out mostly by restaurants but the plan is to employ drivers in the future in the UK. Last year, the firm took out zero rated premises on its sites.

“NSF were brought in to coach, train and audit a lot of those premises. A lot of them don’t necessarily want to engage with authority or another business telling them what to do so eventually we switched them off and we plan to go further with that,” said Glass.

“The first stage is making sure the new sign-ups have a minimum of a pass in Scotland or a food hygiene rating scheme score of 3 in the rest of the UK. We did relax that to include awaiting inspections and that still exists for standard food businesses that have a shop front and a history of trading. If you are a non-standard premise like a home caterer or a dark kitchen and are making food solely for delivery then we’ll accept you as awaiting inspection but only after our auditors have been on site and carried out an inspection.

“For existing businesses that are 1 and 2 rated we plan to follow the same approach. An improvement plan which we are in the middle of right now followed by a switch off date. It was supposed to happen in 2020 but we postponed it primarily because of coronavirus.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)