How Food Agencies around the world have responded to COVID-19?
In the uncertain times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, the critical role played by the food industry cannot be stressed enough. Food services, including groceries, supermarkets, distributors, dairy farms, food manufacturers, and restaurants have been recognized by many countries across the world as ‘essential services.’ National health agencies in these countries have issued specific guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19 for essential services, including food businesses.
Food industry-specific guidelines across the world for COVID-19 transmission prevention. For all types of food businesses, the key priorities remain:
- Keeping updated about local trends and emerging guidelines.
- Protecting their employees.
- Protecting customers.
- Ensuring business continuity.
- Managing enhanced demand and supply.
- Transforming business aspects to ensure it is tech-enabled, including compliance.
World Health Organisation
Guidelines have been issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), regarding the preparation of workplaces for the prevention of COVID-19 transmission. These guidelines include measures businesses can take to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus and the responsibilities of food business owners to minimize the risk of exposure for workers and customers. (WHO, 2020; OSHA, 2020).
The OSHA guidelines for workplaces, including restaurants and food manufacturers, are categorized based on the impact of COVID-19 in the region or the extent of community transmission. In areas that have minimal to nil transmission, businesses should
- Keep themselves updated on local COVID-19 trends by accessing relevant government websites. It is also important to not believe in the myths and rumors about the virus spread on social media sites.
- Be aware of COVID-19 signs and symptoms and what should be done if an employee develops symptoms at the workplace.
- Review and modify work plans to implement liberal leave policies, telework where possible.
- Implement staggered work schedules.
- Encourage those unwell to stay at home and notify authorities.
- Clean and frequently disinfect surfaces and premises daily.
- Ensure the availability of hand hygiene supplies in the building.
- Increase the physical distance between workers.
- Conduct regular health checks and temperature checks of staff.
- Ensure workflows and instructions are strictly followed.
United States of America (USA)
Recommendations in the United States for essential services are issued by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and supported by Federal Drug Agency (FDA) have issued guidelines for businesses and the food industry in particular (National Restaurant Association, 2020).
- Excluding any employee with flu-like symptoms from food service or food-handling operations till they become symptom-free.
- Keeping customers safe by providing additional napkins/tissues when they sneeze or cough. Ensuring alcohol-based hand sanitizers are available for the customers to use.
- Cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and objects that are touched.
- Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60- 95% alcohol when water and soap are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Stay home if sick.
- Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that have been touched (counters, doorknobs, toilets, phones).
- Cover nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with a tissue, then immediately dispose of the tissue and wash hands for at least 20 seconds.
- It’s currently flu and respiratory disease season and CDC recommends getting a flu vaccine, taking everyday preventive actions to help stop the spread of germs, and taking flu antivirals if prescribed.
Bodily fluid exposure
If there is a bodily fluid exposure, food business owners should ensure
- The employee cleaning up the bodily fluid wears Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
- Segregate the contaminated area.
- Dispose-off exposed food.
- Ensure cleaning and sanitizing of utensils contaminated or exposed.
- Frequently sanitize and clean walls, floor, and other contaminated objects.
- Dispose-off equipment used to sanitize.
With its new determination, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) says it is a very good practice to wear a mask if you’re in public. The CDC updated the recommendation on cloth-based face masks for retail food businesses, such as grocery stores. CDC recommends workers in food production, retail stores, and other food establishments where social distancing is difficult to achieve to wear cloth face masks (CDC, 2020).
The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2020) has also recommended a list of disinfectants that need to be used on surfaces.
United Kingdom (UK)
Public Health England along with Department for Environmental Food & Rural affairs and Food Standards Agency have issued guidelines for food businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in establishments. (Public Health England, 2020). Food businesses should follow these practices:
- Allow unwell food handlers to stay at home.
- Practice good hygiene that includes frequent hand washing for 20 seconds before and after handling food and after visiting a public place, coughing, sneezing, or blowing the nose. Use gloves when handling food and ensure their safe disposal or sanitization after use.
- Follow the Food Standard Agency’s hygiene practice guidelines on food preparation, as well as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) processes.
- Take measures to implement privileged access to essential workers, including NHS (National Health Service) staff and the elderly in supermarkets or retail stores.
- Frequently clean surfaces and objects repeatedly touched as per “Safer Food, Better Business’ (SFBB) guidelines.
- The Food Standards Agency has issued guidance on fitness for work for employees who handle food products (Food Standards Agency, 2020).
- use additional signage to ask customers not to enter the shop if they have symptoms
- regulate entry so that the premises do not become overcrowded
- use floor markings inside the commercial spaces to facilitate compliance with the social distancing advice of 2 metres, particularly in the most crowded areas, such as serving counters and tills
- use vertical signage to direct customers into lanes if feasible to facilitate movement within the premises while maintaining 2 metre distance
- make regular announcements to remind customers to follow social distancing advice and clean their hands regularly
- place plexiglass barriers at tills and counters if feasible, as an additional element of protection for workers and customers
- encourage the use of contactless payments where possible, without disadvantaging older or vulnerable customers
- provide additional pop-up handwashing stations or facilities if possible, providing soap, water and hand sanitiser
- Should implement measures to avoid crowding.
- Create adequate space between individuals.
- Monitor and control the number of customers in the store and limit access.
- Implement a queue management system.
- Ensure two meters distance in a queue.
- Remind customers to buy only what they need.
- Provide sanitizers at the entry points.
- Ensure contactless payment at checkout.
- Orders should be taken only by telephone or online channels.
- Implement staggered collection times for customers.
- Discourage customers who arrive at the takeaway without placing an order – they should be told to place an order online or through telephone.
- Only one customer should enter at a time to collect the order.
- Provide sanitizers at the entry points.
- Ensure contactless payment at checkout.
Australia Department of Health recommendations
Guidelines are issued by Food Standards Australia and the Department of Health in Australia to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in food establishments. (Food Standards, 2020).
The general guidelines for employers are the same as those issued in other countries. Employers have a responsibility to
- Provide information and educate all employees on procedures to prevent the spread of the virus that should include information on staying at home when an employee is sick.
- Make protective equipment such as gloves and hand sanitizers available for cleaning staff.
- Follow good hygienic processes for manufacturing and food handling to minimize transmission risk.
- Apart from general cleaning, all food contact surfaces should be frequently sanitized, such as trolley jacks, door handles, light switches, equipment, workbenches, and so on.
- All utensils used for eating and drinking must be cleaned and sanitized using hot water above 60°C or with commercial sanitizers.
- Create physical distance of two meters in workplaces, and in restaurants, place tables one meter apart.
- Mobile food vendors should meet the standards laid down for food service to vulnerable people.
- Implement hand hygiene measures, limit physical contact among workers, and use staggered shifts that help minimize staff interaction and provides more time for thorough cleaning.
- Set up additional sanitizing and hand washing points across the business.
- Ensure the same people work beside each other every day in production areas to limit the spread of COVID-19 in case an infection occurs.
The Singapore government recognizes food businesses as essential services and has issued guidelines to be followed by retailers, food service operators and manufacturers. (Singapore Tourism Board, 2020).
In general, all food business owners must implement measures for safe distancing to reduce physical interaction
- By limiting duration and need for physical interactions.
- Staggering hours of work.
- Postponing group events.
- Implementing split team and shift arrangements.
Food and Beverage industries, including hawker centers, restaurants, food courts, and coffee shops, can continue their operations only for delivery or takeaway. Food and beverage outlets that currently do not have delivery or takeaway service can tie up with third-party delivery services to offer these services.
While delivery drivers and customers can enter the food outlet for takeaway services, these outlets will not offer dine-in service. Customers or drivers should not consume drinks or food on-site when they are waiting for takeaway.
All food and beverage outlets must follow Safe Distancing Measures within the premises while minimizing crowds. These outlets can ensure safe distancing by placing patrons at a distance of one meter from one another at all times in queues or on the premises.
The Ministry of Health (MOH), Singapore, outlined safe distancing measures through “Circuit Breaker to Minimize Further Spread of COVID-19,” issued on April 3, 2020. Further guidelines on this are issued by the Singapore Tourism Board for retail establishments. Retailers such as supermarkets, department stores, and groceries must abide by these guidelines. Online retail delivery can continue its operations through delivery. (Ministry of Health, Singapore, 2020).
- Food retail establishments should implement safe distancing measures with queue management systems and avoid crowding in premises.
- Use floor markers for demarcation of queue lines at cash counters or outside.
- Ensure there is a distance of one-meter between customers at all times.
- Limit the number of people in the store.
- Disperse groups that comprise more than ten persons.
- Encourage self-checkouts, contactless and cashless payment that will minimize cash handling while also speeding up the payment.
- Provide dedicated hours of shopping for vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, elderly, and people with disabilities.
- Use outdoor areas or mall atriums for temporary shopping areas to minimize crowds in their stores.
- Implement health declaration and temperature screening every time employees report for work.
- Ensure cleanliness and good hygiene practices laid down by MOH health advisories.
- Implement hygiene and sanitation practices laid down by the SG Clean campaign.
- Provide hand sanitizers to workers and frontline staff in food establishments who handle cash, delivery, and those who are not able to frequently wash their hands with soap and water.
- Place hand sanitizers close to high touch surfaces, including door handles or counters, to help customers and employees sanitize their hands when they touch these surfaces
- Frequently disinfect the premises and common spaces while enhancing the frequency of cleaning concerning high touch surfaces and any interactive components, such as smart kiosks, within the food establishments.
- Clearly demarcate the waiting area, queue lines, and takeaway areas with signages. ((Singapore Tourism Board, 2020)
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Dubai Municipality’s Health and Safety Department has issued new guidelines for food businesses, including restaurants. (Curlytales.com, 2020).
- More than 50 meals cannot be sold per order.
- Avoid crowding by not allowing customers inside the waiting area.
- Place tables at a minimum of two meters’ distance.
- Use disposable eating utensils and cups for serving beverages and food. Restaurants with automated dishwashing facilities, however, can continue to use regular cutlery.
- Tables should be disinfected and cleaned thoroughly after each customer leaves.
- Open buffets permanently to be closed.
- Increase home delivery and takeaway orders while taking adequate safety precautions, such as contactless delivery and payment.
Meeting the growing demand
Food retailers, manufacturers, farmers, and restaurants are not only essential services but form the backbone of a nation’s food supply chain. Staying abreast of emerging trends and happenings at the local and national levels is crucial as it will help food businesses to act fast and act appropriately. While the demand is increasing exponentially, many food businesses are finding it challenging to ensure adequate supply.
Consumer demand varies across categories and different countries. Some retailers have been faced with up to 800% spike in demand, while for food items, there have been between 25 and 50% enhanced demand. Online delivery and e-commerce have seen a 700% surge in demand.
The key to managing the COVID-19 crisis is in implementing a strategy to reduce exposure and prevent the spread of the virus, develop a plan to ensure business continuity, and incorporate technology where possible.