Food security and Covid-19

Food safety does not emerge as a particular source of concern among the possible risks that can impact the lives of people in general.

However, in this moment of a health emergency, the relationship with food has changed: the frequency of shopping at the store decreases and online shopping increases, attention is paid to hygiene and nutrition handling and diet changes. One thing is sure: consumers play an essential role in contributing to food safety, and even in this particular period, correct behavior in the management of food in the home can guarantee safe and informed consumption.

All the interim indications on food hygiene during the SARS-CoV-2 virus epidemic fully understand the importance of daily practices and procedures to be carried out for risk management purposes and, more generally, safety in the food sector.

1. Food safety: a consistent approach from production to consumption

According to European legislation, food safety is guaranteed through a combined prevention and control approach that embraces the agri-food supply chains “from field to table”.

Such actions include:

  • Proper hygiene in primary production and food processing, marketing, and administration (good agricultural practices and good hygiene practices);
  • An approach based on the prevention, whenever possible, of possible dangers, including those microbiological, and their systematic control by the Food Sector Operator (FBO);
  • A system of integrated official controls by the competent Authorities, planned according to the risk profile of the various activities;
  • A traceability system of raw materials destined to enter food products capable of allowing the management of potentially dangerous situations;
  • Correct information for the consumer through appropriate product labeling and his involvement as an active part in guaranteeing food safety.

Combining all these activities allows, under ordinary conditions, the correct management of food and the guarantee of its healthiness. La combinación de todas estas actividades permite, en condiciones normales, el correcto manejo de los alimentos y la garantía de su salubridad.

2. Hygiene rules and precautions during food production

To ensure the safety of food during production, it is essential that in the agri-food industry, complete and constant adherence to hygiene practices and cleaning and disinfection procedures is provided, as required by legislation and as defined in the manuals of good sector hygiene practice (GHP) and the company HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans.

It is of fundamental importance for food business operators to strengthen personal hygiene and hygiene training measures to reduce the risk of surface contamination, including those of food and packaging. In this regard, to prevent part of microorganisms harmful to human health from contaminating food when they are handled, prepared, transformed, or packaged, there are essential practices that must be carried out and respected.

Among the essential elements is the thorough cleaning and sanitization of all surfaces that will come into contact with food, therefore from the production lines to all the used equipment and materials. This must be done with appropriate specific products. Operators must wash their hands and use clothing suitable for the production environments (such as classic coats, shoes, headgear, gloves, etc.). They are required to wear certified masks and food-grade gloves when handling, preparing, and packaging products. Also, they must comply with the rules concerning personal hygiene.

Within the plants, it will be necessary to adhere to the regulations that provide for the segregation of the different work areas used for raw materials, products, packaging and packaging materials, and everything that aims to produce. Appropriate procedures must also be observed for storage, and those in charge of product handling operations will be required to follow adequate operating instructions.

If an operator experiences symptoms compatible with food-borne diseases, the principle of staff abstention from work will be applied.

3. Hygiene rules and precautions in the marketing of food

According to Regulation (EC) 852/2004 on the hygiene of food products, food trade establishments are considered to be food business operators. They are required to comply with the rules on hygiene and food safety, including the obligation to implement procedures for the management and verification of the principles of the HACCP system, summarized to be checked by the health authorities.

In addition to the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic and the need to guarantee compliance with social distancing indications in food trade places, avoid opportunities for inter-human contagion, and the maximum protection of product hygiene, it is necessary to support the usual business management practices with extraordinary measures.

  • Strict application of the principle of abstention from work by personnel who accuse symptoms compatible with diseases communicable with food or symptoms of respiratory infection and fever (attributable to the Covid-19 epidemic);
  • Cleaning and sanitizing, with appropriate cleaning and disinfectant products and reasonable frequency, of the premises used for the marketing and storage of food and the service areas. Cleaning and environmental hygiene activities must be carried out with a minimum frequency of twice a day;
  • Ensure adequate natural ventilation and air exchange in closed rooms;
  • Availability of suitable quantities of disposable soap and materials for hygienic drying to ensure frequent washing of the hands of all staff, to be carried out continuously at times indicated;
  • Use of gloves and masks for all those in charge of preparing and distributing food, managing shelves, managing warehouses, and the checkout counter, according to the risk assessment by the competent doctor or the provisions of local authorities;
  • Availability for workers who directly handle food, distributors of spray/gel disinfectants for the hands, and adequate quantities of gloves for contact with food and masks, to allow their frequent change;
  • The operations of handling and arranging food products on the shelves and in the refrigerated counters can also occur during opening hours, with the foresight to always ensure the correct physical distancing between operators and customers. The staff must instead carry out extraordinary cleaning operations of the premises after removal of the customers from the area of ​​interest;
  • Ensure frequent disinfection of trolleys and baskets that may be present in the sales point or area with particular attention to the handles for transport and/or towing;
  •  Ensure frequent disinfection of the most touched surfaces, such as refrigerator cabinet handles, keyboards/touchscreens, scales, conveyor belts and areas for depositing purchases at the checkout, areas for bagging purchases and keyboards of POS terminals;
  •  Promote, also using suitable signs, and constantly check that they are correct customer behavior within the commercial areas (respect for interpersonal distances, designated routes, etc. see section “Hygiene rules and precautions for purchase to consumption”).
  •  To reduce the number of physical accesses to points of sale or sales areas, evaluate, also based on the business and organizational possibilities, the encouragement of ordering/selling at a distance or online, both with home delivery and with a collection of products directly by the customer at the point of sale, at the agreed time slot.
  • Where the FBO manages home delivery services for products, both the persons in charge of preparing food products and those in control of their delivery are required, where applicable, to comply with the same indications to protect food hygiene.

3.1  Access to the sales point or areas

  • Place a no-access sign at the entrance to the sales point or area in the presence of flu-like symptoms or any case attributable to COVID-19 infections.
  •  Place instructions at the entrance to the sales point or area on the behavior that the customer must have inside (see section “Hygiene rules and precautions for purchase to consumption”) according to their organizational methods or local provisions.
  • Ensure, as far as possible for areas not about commercial establishments, that the queues for access to the store or sales area are held in compliance with the correct individual spacing.
  • Guarantee entry only to several people, such as to ensure proper individual spacing within the store or sales area. For premises up to 40 m2, access is allowed to one person at a time (plus a maximum of two commercial operators); for larger rooms, access is regulated according to the available spaces;
  • Adjust access to ensure the disposal of queues near the cash desks;
  • Evaluate, where the structure of the premises or commercial area allows it, the establishment of mandatory one-way paths, to ensure an orderly flow of customers;
  • Differentiate, where possible, the entry and exit routes;
  • Make sanitizing hand spray or gel available at the entrance to the business or commercial area. In large shops or commercial sites, deploy dispensers of spray or sanitizing gel for the hands and points inside the shop/area, favoring areas with objects frequently touched by customers such as keyboards/touchscreens of scales, POS, counter handles or refrigerated cabinets, etc.
  • Provide sanitizing spray or gel and disposable wipes at the entrance to the business or commercial area to allow the customer to sanitize the parts of the trolleys/baskets in contact with the hands;
  • Verify that customers who access the business or commercial area adhere to the instructions relating to the use of hand sanitizing masks;
  • Taking into consideration the evolution of approaches and measures for the containment of the COVID-19 epidemic at a national and local level, facilitate the possibility of preferential or priority access for specific groups of the population (e.g., people with mobility difficulties, elderly, personnel engaged in public utility services such as health, public safety, civil protection, etc.)

3.2 Activities within the point of sale and areas

  • Facilitating customers’ respect for interpersonal distances (between customers and concerning the sales staff) through the use of specific horizontal signs in correspondence with the main parking areas (checkout area, delicatessen counters, bakery, etc. .);
  • Ensure the presence, in all areas with the sale of bulk food (e.g., fruit and vegetables, bakery), of suitable quantities of disposable gloves for customers.
  • Highlight the obligation to use these disposable gloves, also using unique signs in the area intended for displaying the products. Since the gloves used for handling food must meet the specifications for materials in contact with food (MOCA), these gloves must also be used by customers who, upon accessing the point of sale, are already equipped with gloves (i.e., overlapping the disposable glove from fruit and vegetable/bakery to the glove already worn by the customer).
  • Where possible, place safety barriers for personnel to minimize contact with customers in the points where it is more challenging to comply with the spacing strictly (e.g., cash desks);
  • Where possible, facilitate the use of contactless payments.

4. Hygiene rules and precautions from purchase to consumption

Food safety is an objective that requires, even in ordinary conditions, the proactive participation of the consumer, who is called to comply with hygiene rules during the purchase, storage, preparation, and consumption of food, through actions such as the use of disposable gloves in the fruit and vegetable/bakery department, the maintenance of storage temperatures, the correct separation of raw foods from cooked ones, etc.

In the period of the COVID-19 epidemic, however, the moment of food purchase is connoted

necessarily as one of the moments in which the coexistence of different individuals – some of them vulnerable such as elderly subjects – is determined within delimited spaces, with potential implications concerning the spacing and hygiene guarantee requirements for the food products displayed. Therefore, this extraordinary situation requires the implementation of additional precautions by the consumer to ensure the safety of food for themselves and other citizens.

Here are some tips for consumers:

For the purchasing

  • Do not go to commercial establishments in the presence of symptoms compatible with COVID-19 (respiratory infection and fever greater than 37.5 ° C). In case of need for food purchases, use alternative home delivery services (commercial, social support, neighborhood, etc.).
  • Before going out to go shopping for food, fill out a detailed shopping list; where you go to a business or a known commercial area, organize the list according to the route to be taken (e.g., about the arrangement of the foods of interest inside the supermarket or the counters in the local market). Stay in business only for the time necessary for the purchase operations.
  •  In the waiting times before entering the sales outlets, strictly adhere to the distancing rules.
  •  The use of face masks (surgical or, in the presence of limited availability, non-surgical type)  is recommended within commercial premises intended for the sale of food, taking into account any local authorities’ provisions. Since the use of masks inside the premises intended for the sale of food is also aimed at reducing the spread of SARS-CoV2 by minimizing the excretion of respiratory droplets by unknowingly infected subjects, the use of facial filters equipped with a valve (FFP masks with valve) which, due to their specific manufacturing principle, do not provide a barrier to exhalation, do not meet the required purpose.
  • At the entrance to the shop, use the sanitizing gels/sprays made available by the operators for the disinfection of the handles of the trolleys/baskets.
  • At the shop entrance, always use the hand sanitizing gel made available by the merchants. We remind you that, after the sanitization of the hands, it is important not to touch your mouth, face, eyes and avoid touching other objects (mobile phone, bag, etc.) to preserve the hygiene of the hands and things of personal use for the time necessary for food purchases.
  • Within the business or the food market, strictly adhere to the rules of distancing from other customers and store staff.
  • Respect, where there are any, the obligatory paths defined by the merchants or market area managers.
  • In departments with the sale of bulk food (e.g., fruit and vegetables, bakery, etc.), always use the disposable gloves made available by the merchants or, where present, delegate the task of packing and weighing the product to the salesperson. Where gloves are already worn, overlap the disposable glove with the one already worn.
  • Avoid touching and storing the products on display; where possible, limit yourself to handling and depositing in the cart/basket only the items you intend to purchase.
  • When it comes to cash and payment operations, respect the distance from other customers and keep the cashier staff’s distance.

At Home

  • Upon returning home, take care not to place the bags (sacks) used for carrying the shopping, set in the bagging areas and on the ground, on surfaces with which food will come into contact. Periodically wash the bags (pouches) using soap and water or disinfected chlorine-based solutions.
  • Before putting away the shopping and after putting it away, wash your hands thoroughly with hot water and soap, for 40-60 seconds, washing the back and palms of the hands, paying attention to thumbs, fingertips, and nails, also rubbing the spaces between the fingers.
  • Shopping arrangement: the above indications and suggestions for hygiene during the production, distribution, and purchase of food, constitute a preventive approach of fundamental importance concerning the possibility of accidental dispersion of SARS-CoV2 on foods or their packaging. Therefore, there is no need to disinfect food packaging or wash fruit and vegetables when returning home. It is also necessary to remember that food must always be touched with clean hands or utensils and that it is, therefore, good hygiene practice, after touching food packaging and before touching the food with your hands, wash them.
  • Arrange the food inside the refrigerator respecting the principle of separation between natural products and cooked products, which must always be preserved from any contamination inside closed containers or using a suitable cover. An informative video on the correct arrangement of food in the domestic refrigerator can be found here.
  • Avoid consuming foods of animal origin (such as meat, fish, eggs) raw or undercooked.

As noted above, there is no evidence of food-borne transmission of the SARS-CoV2, as well as Coronaviruses previously emerged in epidemic form (SARS e MERS). However, raw animal products can carry various pathogens a food transmission, and it is necessary always to take care of their mode of consumption. Also , for this reason, foods of animal origin are the only foods that, purely as a precaution, WHO recommends not consuming raw or undercooked during the COVID-19 epidemic.

  • Before and after preparing food, wash your hands thoroughly.
  • During cooking, make sure that the cooking temperatures are reached uniformly in the food and, in particular, in its innermost parts (i.e., at the heart of the product).
  • After cooking food, do not use for handling or storing tools and containers used for the same foods before cooking or other raw foods.
  • Consume frozen and deep-frozen foods only after complete cooking, even when their commodity nature could suggest raw consumption (e.g., corn).
  • Before consumption, carefully wash fruit and vegetables intended to be eaten raw, rinsing them repeatedly under running water. Where available, immerse the product in water containing chlorine-based food disinfectants, carefully following the product’s instructions for concentrations, times of use, and rinsing methods.
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