Coronavirus and the effects on food businesses
With the majority of food businesses closed and ships not sailing, or offering severely restricted services, find out how Coronavirus is affecting food businesses, and what the future holds.
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We are in unprecedented times, as we keep on being told. Ships have stopped sailing, restaurants and hotels closed.There have been big stories in the food industry in the past, think of Ecoli O157 outbreaks, Norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships, the Sudan 1 food dye recall, foot and mouth, BSE, the list goes on. But never something as big as this, which will transform the way we run food businesses and handle food for at least the foreseeable future, maybe permanently.
There will be a lot of food businesses that will not be able to survive this crisis, and those that do will need to make significant changes to their working practices. We are still currently in a state of unknown, with it not clear when restaurants will be able to reopen fully in the UK.
Risks in food preparation areas when re-opening
With galleys and kitchens being closed for a number of months, pests are likely to be the most significant issue to be aware of. Any food debris will attract pests, and any pest proofing will not have been identified over the last few months. Pests like dark environments, and prefer to be undisturbed, so there is significant potential for pest activity. Any food stored during the last few months will need checking for signs of gnawing damage or contamination with eggs, larvae, rodent urine, droppings etc. Underneath doors will need checking for potential access points, with the waste area needing to be checked.
If food preparation areas were closed down quickly, there may be food debris underneath fridges and freezers that may have attracted rodents.
Food contamination, Spoilage and expired food
The lockdown will have caused significant food wastage in numerous food businesses. A lot of businesses donated food to charity or used it to produce food for vulnerable groups and / or the NHS. But there will have been some businesses which will have frozen as much food as possible to try and minimise waste. If it has been frozen and defrosted according to your food safety management procedures, there may not be a food safety concern, although quality may be affected. However, if foods havent been wrapped properly before freezing, were frozen with little shelf life remaining, or had been previously frozen and defrosted, there will be a more signicant food safety risk. Freezer burn and contamination with allergens or foreign bodies will be of concern as well. .
During the lockdown, waste oil, food waste, recycling and refuse bin collections will have been suspended. Waste may have ben left laying around in kitchens or onboard, which will attract pests. All contracts will need to be started again to ensure there doesnt become a build-up of food waste.
Legionella is a health and safety concern with water left in pipes and cylinders at a temperature that may support bacterial growth. All taps and shower heads will need to be thoroughly flushed through before use, with normal legionella checks carried out.
Employees will need training on any new additional procedures that you put in place. There may also be new team members you have taken on which will need to be adequately trained in food safety.
Handwashing and materials
Now more than ever it needs to be re-emphasized just how crucial hand-washing is. Not that it has ever been acceptable in the past to run out of handwashing facilities in food handling areas, but it is crucial when businesses are allowed to re-open that handwash facilities are available in all food handling and employee back of house areas. Customer toilets must have a supply of all handwash facilities. Alcohol gel has been introduced by a number of food businessses prior to the lockdown. Whilst the most effective way to control the risk is to effectively wash your hands with soap and water, alcohol gel is an additional precaution in public areas and in addition to handwash facilities.
Allergens Information and training
Suppliers may have changed since before the lockdown, there may be availability issues with certain products, or a simplified menu may have been brought in before the lockdown. All of these may affect your allergen information. Allergen information and supplier details should be checked prior to trading again, to make sure it is all accurate.
Fitness to work
It will need establishing if all employees are fit to return to work. For businesses that need it, the FSA (Food Standards Agency) have some good guidance: ‘Food Handlers – Fitness to Work Guidance’. This guidance is not specific to coronavirus but the general principles apply. It does contain a fitness-to-work questionnaire that can be used for employees to complete. See link below.
Cleaning and cleaning equipment
Prior to re-use for food preparation, all areas, equipment, food contact surfaces and hand-contact surfaces will need to be thoroughly cleaned with hot soapy water to remove any build up of dirt. If there has been any pest activity withi your business during the lockdown, surfaces and equipment may be contaminated with faeces, urine and a variety of pathogens! Once all areas and surfaces have been thoroughly cleaned, any areas, equipment or surfaces that come in to contact with food or hands will need to be disinfected. The most effective way is to use a dishwasher which rinses above 82°C. For work surfaces, hand-contact surfaces and anything which will not fit inside the dishwasher will need to disinfected with a food-safe disnifectant or sanitizer prior to use.
Equipment such as dishwashers and washing machines should be run on a hot wash prior to use.
Possible risks to food from Coronavirus
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said that there is very little risk of contracting coronavirus from food or packaging (see link below). However it is clear that restaurants, pubs and other premises serving food will need to make changes to their practices when planning for re-opening. This includes crew dining facilities, where the risk of transmission from touch points needs to be considered.
Possible changes when businesses are allowed to re-open
A lot of the precations needed to control coronavirus would have been in place in most food businesses anyway. Those working at sea will be used to very stringent disinfection routines to control Norovirus. But i`m sure we could all do with reviewing exisitng procedures and reflecting on they have been implemented previously. ‘Door handles’ may be listed on a cleaning schedule – but how often are they acutally sanitized? (if fridge door handles have a build up of a suspect brown sludge then they havent been sanitized nearly often enough. When i was a kitchen manager, fridge door handles, taps, microwave handles etc in the kitchen were sanitized multiple times a day and checked using cleaning schedules and various checklists. But there needs to be the same focus on hand-contact points not in the kitchen, such as door handles, hand rails and customer touch-screen terminals (there is an increase in the use of these to log your car reg number, but are they on a cleaning schedule?). Invariably there is more focus on disnifection of hand-contact points in food preparation areas rather than back of house areas and crew dining facilities.
An increasing number of businesses are trying to switch to contactless forms of payment to reduce the risk of transmission through cash handling or from the ‘chip and pin’ machine.
There will need to be a significant focus on cleaning practices to ensure a safe re-opening. An increased frequency of cleaning and disinfection of freqently touched areas will be needed. Fridge door handles and microwave handles in kitchens frequently have a build up of dirt. The cleaning products in use need to be effective against coronavirus. Products which are diluted by team members degrade over time (check manufacturers instructions for shelf life but some may only have a 24 hour life when diluted) so need to be freshly diluted. Employees will need reminding of the importance of the correct contact time and dosage of the products for them to be effective.
A number of food businesses have been reviewing what possible contact surfaces there are on a table which could transit viruses. Menus, salt and pepper pots, sauce bottles etc on customer tables or crew dining areas may be touched by multiple people, and are invariably not considered on a cleaning schedule. Could these be removed, could single serve sachets be used? Can taps and soap dispensers be swapped for touch-free versions? Team members dining facilities often display open food with tongs and utensils used by mutliple people. Could this be avoided?
There seems to be a growing number of people (the public when out shopping, peole working in shops) using gloves as a precaution to protect against coronavirus. Gloves have never been a legal requirement in food premises in the UK (some businessses may use them for specific tasks but these are used excusively for this task), handwashing is considered the best option. An example; our local corner shop has been open throughout the pandemic, and i greatly appreciate that. They have put social distancing measures in place, including a perspex screen at the counter. But the assistant has always slightly baffled me. He has been wearing disposable gloves throughout the crisis. I went in there today, and he was wearing gloves. He served the one other person in the shop, prior to me, and they paid in cash. He took the money, served me from behind the screen, and then took my payment. All while wearing the same disposable gloves, and then preceeeded to scratch his head, itch his nose and carried on restocking the shelves. All whilst wearing the same disposable gloves throughout. He had been scanning and packing my shopping throughout.
I really struggle to see who this is protecting, or who it is aiming to protect? Surely if you put a procedure in place, it should be clear what it is intended for, and it should be effective. If the procedure is necessary, all employees need training on the procedure and adequate supplies need to be provided. But if, on reflection, the procedure you are putting in place will not actually control the risk, maybe its worth considering another way?
Social distancing measures
There have been several articles highlighting how it would not be proftable for a lot of businesses to operate with effective social distancing (see the link below). But it does seem inevitable that as and when food businesses are allowed to reopen, there are going to be some changes necessary. Current UK guidance for social distancing is 2 metres, so it needs considering if and how this can be maintained within food premises.
If new chefs, crew and other food handlers have been employed since the reopening or are returning to work after the lockdown, they will need training on your allergens procedures. If a new head chef has been recruited, have they changed the ingredients in certain dishes? Is sesame seed oil now used where peanut oil was used by the previous chef? Allergen information needs to be updated to reflect the current menu and ingredients used. Do your new food handlers know your procedures for controlling E.coli in food preparation areas?
Takeaways and deliveries
If you are an existing food business that has started doing deliveries and takeaways, the FSA have provided guidance, see below. Have you considered how allergens orders will be taken, and communicated between the customer and food business?
Whilst there are a lot of uncertainties regarding timescales, hopefully being made clearer in the coming days, all businesses will need to adapt. There are several guidance documents that have been published below, including some guidance from the US regarding food premises reopening that may be worth considering.
We are offering business support with reopening after the lockdown. We can provide a remote / virtual audit of your premises before you reopen, to advise on what is required. We have Coronavirus reopening checklists and are happy to provide advice for free.
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Below are some of the most recent guidance and articles available regarding coronavirus and food:
Evening standard article on possible changes to restaurants and pubs in light of the coronavirus outbreak:
Interesting article explaining some of Hilton’s changes in their cleaning practices in relation to Coronavirus:
US Guidance for restaurants reopening after the lockdown:
FSA Guidance for consumers on coronavirus (COVID-19) and food:
WHO Q & A on coronaviruses (how long does coronavirus surface on surfaces?)
FSA Guidance for food businesses on coronavirus:
CIEH Food delivery and takeaway guidance
FSA Food handlers: Fitness to Work Guidance