The novel coronavirus pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus (also known as COVID-19 virus) has created an unprecedented threat across the world. Many countries, including India, are following the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding social distancing as one of the significant measures that can reduce the transmission of this disease.
As the pandemic continues to suspend daily life around the world, concerns about food supply and safety are growing. Today, it’s not just about the ability of food producers to deliver their products to people who need them, but there is also concern among consumers about food hygiene safety.
The US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has stated that it has not found any evidence of the transmission of the Covid-19 virus through food and food packaging. It said that unlike food-borne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses, COVID-19 is a virus that causes respiratory illness, which is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Nevertheless, the same agency says, it’s always essential to follow the four critical steps of food safety — clean, separate, cook, and chill – to prevent food-borne illness.
The World Health Organization (WHO), says coronaviruses cannot multiply in food – they need an animal or a human host to multiply. Alternatively, the respiratory droplets being too heavy to be airborne, rest on the surfaces surrounding infected persons. Individuals can contract the infection by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes. Researchers have evaluated the survival of the COVID-19 virus on different surfaces.
Considering how fast this pandemic is spreading, the food industry has a huge responsibility of maintaining trust and consumer confidence in the safety and availability of food. Moreover, there is an urgent requirement for the food industry to reinforce personal hygiene measures and conduct adequate training on food hygiene principles to eliminate or reduce the risk of contamination on food surfaces and food packaging materials.
The industry has to comply with specific guidelines and measures recommended by WHO as well as local governments to ensure food safety. These include but are not limited to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and gloves, to reduce the spread of viruses and disease within the premises. It is also vital to maintain social or physical distancing, stringent hygiene, and sanitation measures, promoting frequent and effective hand washing and sanitization at each stage of food processing, manufacture, and marketing.
In addition, food manufacturing plants should be vigilant in their hygiene practices, including frequent and proper handwashing and routine cleaning of all surfaces using suitable disinfectants. These measures will not only protect staff from spreading COVID-19 among workers, but also help to maintain a healthy workforce, and detect and exclude infected food handlers and their immediate contacts from the workplace.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has developed a series of sector-specific Food Safety Management System (FSMS) guidance documents based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles to manage food safety risks and prevent food contamination during manufacturing, packing, storage, and transportation. These guidelines ensure that critical food safety-related aspects are addressed throughout the supply chain. In case a business does not have an FSMS or HACCP team established, it needs to appoint one person responsible for considering whether food safety risks could arise from additional measures. Also, this designated person must liaise with food safety authorities for advice.
These guidelines help the food industry to meet all the underlying conditions and activities necessary to maintain a hygienic food processing environment including good hygiene practices, cleaning, and sanitation, zoning of food processing areas, maintaining physical distancing by restricting the number of workers, supplier control, storage, distribution and transport, and personnel hygiene among others. Not only will these additional measures help to maintain the integrity of the food chain, but they will also ensure adequate and safe food supplies are available for consumers. The industry’s mission is to deliver nutrition beyond sustenance – to deliver the right kind of food in a way that keeps the population healthy and energizes it for the challenges ahead!