Food Safety In The Time Of COVID-19

Patrons toast their glasses of beer between a plastic partition, used as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Hanoi. (AFP Photo)

Recently an operator of a restaurant in Kedah, a state in northwest Malaysia, who flouted the mandatory home quarantine rule after returning from India tested positive for COVID-19 on 28 July – resulting in the infamous Sivaganga cluster, involving his restaurant employees and patrons. Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the Kedah cluster has a faster rate of transmission compared with nine other clusters in other states, possibly due to a 'super-spreader' strain of the COVID-19 virus. 

This begs the question; how safe is it for us to dine out? How can we protect ourselves, not just as consumers but also as food handlers and operators? 

Can I Get COVID-19 From Food Or Food Packaging?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), United States’ (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and many other public health organisations, there is currently no evidence that the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted through food or food packaging. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and it spreads mainly through person-to-person contact and direct contact with respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. 

Citing from a published document by the WHO, the COVID-19 virus and other viruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) added that consumption of cooked meat (of domestic or wild origin), eggs and milk are not considered a means for acquiring the disease. However, contamination of the food supply with other pathogens, such as Salmonella spp., Campylobacter spp., Escherichia coli, and Listeria monocytogenes, represents a major concern for food safety worldwide. 

Food can become contaminated with microorganisms that cause human illnesses from multiple sources along the entire food chain, starting from infections in live animals up to the point of consumption. Preventing such contamination will reduce foodborne illness and decrease the likelihood of new viruses emerging in the food chain. 

Consuming Raw Foods

The WHO placed particular emphasis on good hygiene practices when handling fresh foods that may be consumed raw and/or without any further processing. Examples include fresh fruits and vegetables and ready-to-eat (RTE) foods for consumption without further heat treatment. These foods are mostly prone to contamination from the environment and food handlers. 

Generally, it is crucial to keep food contact surfaces, equipment, and tools clean, observe good handwashing practices, separate raw and cooked foods, and use clean water to reduce the risk of exposure to any foodborne bacteria and viruses.

While foodborne transmission of COVID-19 has not been reported, avoiding raw and undercooked foods of animal origin (meat, eggs, milk products) will reduce exposure to all viruses and other foodborne pathogens. This is advisable for high-risk populations such as the elderly, children aged five years and below, pregnant women, and patients with weakened immune systems caused by medical treatments. 

Cooking food to an internal temperature of 70 degree Celsius is adequate to kill the virus and any other pathogens in meat and other raw foods, because the virus is not heat resistant. Always remember that viruses cannot reproduce and grow in numbers in foods. 

However, whether before or after cooking, meats should always be stored in a way that ensures that they do not contaminate other foods and will not be re-contaminated after cooking. Additionally, sufficient cooking of frozen food is also encouraged as studies reveal that viruses resist freezing and can be found in frozen foods for up to two years at -20 degree Celsius.

Food safety guidelines covid-19
Source: Food Safety Kerala

Dining Out – Safety First

Theoretically, the COVID-19 virus can spread directly from person-to-person when an infected person coughs or sneezes, producing droplets that reach the nose, mouth, or eyes of another person. Alternatively, as the respiratory droplets are too heavy to be airborne, they deposit on objects and surfaces surrounding the infected person. Thus, potentially, the COVID-19 virus can also spread when a person touches contaminated surfaces and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. 

Therefore, proper cleaning and sanitising is essential to prevent cross-contamination – this involves sanitisation of inanimate objects such as knives, saws, transport containers and conveyer belts made of metal, plastic and wood. 

The FAO revealed that most pathogens, including coronaviruses, can be destroyed with most common disinfectants and sanitisers used in food processing. A 0.05 percent hypochlorite solution, equivalent to a 1:100 dilution of household bleach, is effective in killing most pathogens and can be used to disinfect surfaces after cleaning. 

It is important to follow manufacturers’ recommendations regarding disinfectant use, notably the need to first remove organic matter that can inhibit contact and neutralise the efficacy of disinfectants; dilution of the disinfectant; and the contact time required to be effective. If alcohol is used as a disinfectant, it should contain a final concentration of between 60 to 85 percent. However, all chemical-related disinfectants or sanitisers might leave a residue on the surfaces, and an unintentional overdose of chemicals could be of particular concern. 

Alternatively, food business operators can consider a greener and more sustainable way of cleaning and sanitising by using ozonised water – a disinfecting method using water infused with ozone that effectively destroys the cells of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Since ozone rapidly reverts to oxygen, it does not leave any residue after cleaning.

Currently, an industry and academic collaboration between both Malaysia-based Taylor’s University’s Culinology programme and Medklinn International will facilitate research, promote and increase awareness on the application of ozone technology food safety as an alternative disinfectant solution without using chemicals – a highly useful addition to Medklinn’s ongoing research on the effects of ozone technology on COVID-19 viruses. 

Food Handlers’ Personal Hygiene

The food industry should not overlook the importance of food handlers in managing the transmission of viruses. Historically, scientists have discovered that insufficient handwashing among food handlers is responsible for many foodborne disease outbreaks. An example was Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) who was attributed with infecting over 50 individuals during her work as a cook while asymptomatically shedding Salmonella Typhi – the most remarkable example of poor personal hygiene. 

Personal protective equipment (PPEs) such as masks and gloves can be effective in reducing the spread of viruses and disease within the food industry, but only if used properly. Additionally, the food industry is strongly advised to introduce physical distancing and stringent hygiene and sanitation measures and promote frequent and effective handwashing, in compliance with government enforced Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs). SOPs are crucial at every step, from food preparation to serving. 

Food handlers experiencing clinical gastrointestinal or respiratory disease symptoms should not participate in food processing or preparation. Ultimately, food safety practices in food premises should continue to be delivered to the highest hygiene standards in accordance with established food safety assurance systems.

A Silver Lining

Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardised many food businesses due to temporary closures, there were some unexpected positive impacts. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has noted a significant drop in the number of foodborne illnesses in Finland between March and May 2020. The institute believes this is because the coronavirus pandemic resulted in various restrictions and recommendations for food businesses and since there was frequent handwashing and food prepared for smaller groups, there were fewer foodborne illnesses.

Perhaps then, has the pandemic made us more aware of the critical importance of food safety and environmental sanitisation to our wellbeing? It is left to be seen if people will adapt to the ‘new normal’ and live healthier lives.  

Related Articles:

WHO Urges Countries To 'Wake Up' And Halt Virus 

The New Normal In ASEAN 

Dr Wendy Pek Kui Lim is Senior Lecturer and Researcher in the School of Food Studies and Gastronomy at Taylor’s University.