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Coping With COVID-19 In The Food Service Community

COVID-19, the coronavirus disease outbreak was declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization on January 30, 2020.  This public health concern, which is now classified as a pandemic has caused immense changes in the way we live and work. In South Africa the President declared COVID-19 as a national State of Disaster. This situation calls for cooperation in times of the global challenge as every aspect of our society has been affected.

Statistics regarding the number of people infected and how many people worldwide have died are reported daily. This has led to a lockdown approach that every country has implemented according to the situation in their specific locations.  We ourselves in South Africa have been informed of travel restrictions, closing of borders, keeping ourselves safe, and the latest is, the hours that various outlets in the food and hospitality industry may function.

The European Food Safety Association (EFSA) has reported that currently there is no evidence for COVID-19 coronavirus transmission through food or food packaging. The virus that produces COVID-19 causes respiratory illness and differs from foodborne gastrointestinal viruses, such as norovirus and hepatitis, that often make people ill through contaminated food.  The real risk in food businesses is human-to-human transmission and surface contamination. It is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their face, however this is not the main way the virus is spread. Our challenge in the food industry is to now provide food options from sanitized, well-managed establishments. That means always follow the 4 key steps of food safety to prevent foodborne illness as the standard operating procedure in all our businesses and at home:

  • CLEAN: Wash hands, utensils, and surfaces often
  • SEPARATE: Don’t cross contaminate
  • COOK: to the correct temperature
  • CHILL: Refrigerate and freeze food properly

Currently information on how to prevent human to human contamination is at the order of the day and social distancing is the new normal. It is the primary responsibility of a commercial foodservice operation to protect both its workers and customers therefore re-double all cleaning and sanitation efforts to control any risks, by maintaining clean and sanitized facilities and food contact services. The challenge for us in the foodservice industry is to manage and contain the surface contamination. Applying the following principles and actions in both foodservice and at home can assist in preventing surface contamination:

  • To avoid the transmission of COVID-19 through surface contact it is recommended to frequently wash and sanitize all food contact surfaces and utensils.
  • Foodservice workers must also practice frequent hand washing and glove changes before and after preparing food.
  • Initiate frequent cleaning and sanitizing of counters and condiments containers
  • Consumers should wash their hands after using serving utensils.
  • Consider a more frequent cleaning schedule.

Additional control measures that can be implemented by commercial foodservice are to:

  • Follow protocols and rules that have been set by local and national health departments and organizations for your area and business. This information is online and can be accessed by all This is important for all so that timely and accurate information can provide the correct responses wherever the foodservice may be or the consumers may be living.
  • Ensure that all workers are trained and understand the importance of preventative actions that need to be adhered to, such as maintaining the facility in a sanitary condition to prevent environmental pathogens, hazards from employees handling food and food allergen hazards.
  • If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform the other members of staff of their possible exposure but maintain confidentiality. Consult with the local health department for guidance.
  • Monitoring as preventative control and assuring that these control measures are consistently performed, e.g. making sure that food is cooked to the appropriate temperature to kill pathogens and monitoring and documenting such actions.
  • Use sanitizer products and disinfectants that are legal and meet the required standards in cleaning and sanitizing practices.
  • Check all product labels and adhere to the guidelines for if and where disinfectant products are safe and recommended for use in food establishments.

We need to listen to the experts and apply the PRINCIPLE OF COLLECTIVE SOLIDARITY, where together we can assure consumers, that the products and services we provide to them are safe during this time of social distancing which in fact is physical distancing.

The foodservice industry is already suffering severe financial impacts as we are being subjected to various governmental regulations such as enhanced hygiene practices, social distancing, restrictions, curfews and other emergency measures. Many small businesses in the formal and informal food industry operate on razor-thin margins.  They have lost their day-to-day revenue as they need to adhere to the recommendations and regulations required from government and other institutions regulating their operations. However even in these times of restriction our industry has not run and hid, they have come forward with ingenious ways of continuing to support and provide products and services to their clients as they need to survive for all showing their COLLECTIVE SOLIDARITY. This is about serving but also assuring that their businesses survive, and their employees continue to work and earn an income. Proactive measures that have been taken amid social distancing, therefore no dine-in service, have been replaced with drive-through options, delivery or special pick-up services. Services and products are required, and the foodservice industry will rally to meet the needs of their communities and customers. 

 In times of emergency as we as a country are encountering with COVID-19, people panic, and this is a natural response.  Retailers are at their wits end to keep the shelves stocked as consumers are afraid that everything from cleaning materials to food products are going to run out. Customers want to reestablish control of their environments by ensuring that they have enough, even too much, of everyday requirements. This is our opportunity as members of the foodservice industry to educate our clients and customers by being empowered and offering products and services that are safe and reliable and engaging with both our business partners and communities to cope with COVID-19. As an industry, both in the retail and foodservice environment, we can work collectively to support the people in our communities by being the stable force in society by means of adaptability, flexibility and resilience. Online ordering that reduces contact and exposure has become a lifeline to consumers that can afford it, however it has also created glitches with the frenzy with which this mode of purchasing has escalated. It is therefore imperative for the retailers and foodservice industry to work closely with government and other institutions in these times of dramatic changes in buying patterns, to facilitate the provision of food and services to all people, both to those that can and cannot afford it. The challenge is to remain adaptable and flexible by continuing to follow the guidance of health professionals and instructions from the government as new recommendations, actions and prevention methods are communicated.

Coping with the COVID-19 requires the food industry to remain adaptive and minimize additional logistical and food safety risks. This can be done by:

  •  Having proactive communications plans and mechanisms in place when having to implement new policies.
  • Increasing communications with partners to become more resilient in operational  activities
  • Assuring that infrastructure is in place to cope with the changing circumstances

This is a difficult time for the food industry both globally and locally and we need to be that tenacious group in the community that are the champions to help us all get through this public health crisis together.

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