COVID-19 and Food Safety

As the coronavirus spreads across all sections of the population, food safety concerns grow as the possibility of grocery and restaurant workers testing positive for the virus appears imminent. Many states across the U.S have mandated closure of restaurants or temporary curfews aimed at slowing the transmission of COVID-19. Many food service establishments have shut down their dine-in services and turned to drive-thru, takeaway, and delivery services.

Food is critical infrastructure and like healthcare, the food industry needs to keep itself up and running during public emergencies such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.  The Coronavirus is thought to be transmitted between humans mainly through droplet infections. To date, there has been no evidence of any viral transmission associated with food. That said, it is crucial for food manufacturers and food retail facilities to employ stringent measures to ensure safe personnel practices for preventing contamination of food, food contact surfaces, and packaging.

The FDA-regulated food manufacturers are required to follow the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) at all times. The CGMPs are a set of formal quality control guidelines which regulate food manufacturing facilities to prevent, or minimize the potential for contamination. This means that even if there happens to be a corona-infected worker in the food facility, current practices laid down by the CGMP ensure that any instance of contamination is effectively eliminated. 

The coronavirus has been shown to survive for short periods of time on different types of surfaces. It is also believed that mildly symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers of the corona virus may have the potential to transmit the virus to healthy people, although this is not considered to be the major mode of transmission. Routine fitness to work guidelines should be followed and corona- infected food workers should not be allowed to work.

While it is impractical for food industry workers to completely adhere to the social distancing regulations laid down by health authorities, it is extremely important for them to maintain a more frequent sanitizing schedule as an extra precaution particularly with respect to high human contact surfaces. Mere social distancing will not help in food production/processing facilities and retail food establishments unless robust hygiene practices including frequent hand washing and disinfecting of food contact surfaces are put in place. The CDC recommends that all workers in food production/retail settings maintain a frequent hand-washing routine with soap and water (for a minimum of 20 seconds). Alcohol-based sanitizers are not considered to be a replacement for soap, but may be used in addition to proper hand washing; or in cases when soap and water are not available.


Gloves Versus Hand Washing Routine

Health Authorities say that food handlers can use their bare hands to prepare/handle food, but need to follow proper hand washing procedures at regular intervals. Gloves can be used to handle food, but it is important to change gloves if they are being used for non-food related activities such as handling money, opening doors, or disposing trash. Hand washing after removing gloves is also important as contaminated gloves can transmit germs to the hands.


Can reusable Shopping Bags Be a Source of Infection?

It would be very unlikely for grocery workers to become infected with coronavirus by touching reusable shopping bags. Although this may be a possibility, the transmission risk may not be significant to cause concern. But assuming it does pose a threat, there are many recommendations that can help address these issues: customers can be urged to bag their own purchases if they happen to use reusable bags. Alternately, supermarkets could provide single-use paper or plastic bags.


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