Food Service: A Safe Food Option During COVID-19

The 2019 novel Coronavirus, named COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), continues to dominate our lives.

Global media outlets are tracking its spread and effects, ranging from central bank responses such as cutting interest rates and releasing financial assistance packages, to local shortages of hand sanitiser and toilet paper. Public misinformation can lead to public panic, with impacts ranging from panic buying of essentials goods such as food and medication to business closures. So what are the implications of COVID-19 on the global food industry, and what does that mean for you, the consumer? And can you help?

Food Safety Implications

COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, which is spread almost exclusively through person-to-person, or person – to contact surface- to person as was the case with earlier coronavirus strains, including MERS and SARS viruses. As we learn more about the virus, there may be a slim chance that COVID-19 does present some cross-contamination concerns. It is contracted by inhalation or a similar mechanism, such as breathing in infected droplets from another person’s cough. Consequently, it might be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a food package that has had the virus on it and then touching their mouth or nose should the droplets enter respiratory organs, such as the lungs.

By contrast, foodborne illnesses from cross-contamination risks are typically microbial. The difference between COVID-19, and foodborne illnesses, such as Norovirus or Hepatitis A, is that foodborne illnesses pose a food safety risk because they are contracted by ingestion of the microbe through eating a contaminated food product which then enters the body via the gastrointestinal tract.

While any food safety risks posed by the virus continue to be evaluated, members of the community must follow proper hygiene practices, including washing hands and surfaces regularly to keep the risk level low. At all times during the COVID-19 outbreak, members of the public must continue to protect their own, and the health and safety of others, by:

  • Practising good respiratory hygiene: cough into your elbow, a tissue or pull your top up over your mouth, and
  • Personal hygiene: wash hands regularly with soap or effective alcohol-based sanitizer and discard tissues and wipes safely personal behavior: refrain from shaking hands, touching surfaces or objects when out, and observe ‘social distancing,’ (or more appropriately, sometimes referred to ‘physcial distancing’ ).

Supporting Food Service

So this is where we can all help. If you take your daily exercise or drive to get essential goods, the streets are bare. Each of us is experiencing new and ever-emerging challenges and the landscape is uncertain. But stop and think, maybe you are like me, you have a regular coffee shop you go to on your way into the office. You like coffee their coffee, sure. Perhaps it is also convenient. Often though, part of the morning coffee ritual is the personal interaction.

It is somehow lovely when the barista sees you hurrying up and says ‘the usual’ with an encouraging smile. Your barista, has been at work since the early hours, rain, hail or heat (depending on where you are). And so that smile, added to the saving of a few moments as the barista already knew what you want, and quite frankly, the fact that he or she can remember your order before coffee- is something to be grateful for.

I’ve often thought, with the myriad of choices these days, that being able to recite your order - almond milk, weak, extra hot with a dash of cold water - before you have had the benefit of coffee is almost too much to expect.

Now it is your turn to be encouraging. Small businesses are closing, and a large number of those are foodservice businesses. If you are able, consider ordering in take-away for you and your family once or twice a week. This does a few things: it supports the hospitality industry, helps small businesses, provides employment for delivery drivers and food service staff, and typically contributes to your local community. Importantly too, you can avoid unnecessary exposure to public places and take some pressure off our food retailers who are working tirelessly keeping our food supplies available and stocked.

There are some great initiatives that food service delivery companies such as DoorDash, GrubHub and Deliveroo, have introduced. Across the food sector, retail and food service businesses have implemented contactless delivery service. For instance UberEats allows you to select ‘Leave at the Door’ which includes a text notification upon completion- thereby optimising social distancing practices.

Tips for consumers to ensure food service safety during COVID-19:

  • When you are having food delivered, ensure there is no contact with the delivery driver. Within food service delivery apps, select the most suitable method from the delivery options, such as ‘leave at the door’ or ‘collect curbside’. If you are ordering from a food business that does its own deliveries, ask them to leave it at the door.
  • Avoid signing for deliveries. Some businesses are being more flexible about signing, for instance taking a photo of your order at your door, rather than signing. However, sometimes signing is legal requirement, for instance, for alcohol delivery so you should consider: wearing plastic gloves, washing and sanitising your hands after signing and do not stand in close proximity to delivery personnel, or receive goods hand- to-hand. For your safety and theirs, request that they place the delivery and the document to be signed 1.5 meters away. Then sign, replace, step back and let them leave.
  • Maintain physical distance when ordering food. Shoppers should follow the social distancing measures put in place by food service businesses and major retailers, now limiting how many people can enter their stores at the one time.
  • Wear protection gear to the store, if you have it. Since COVID-19 mostly spreads when virus-containing droplets make their way into a person’s mouth, eyes, or nose, it makes sense to wear protective gear to reduce community-based transmission.
  • Use contactless pay. Contactless pay options are better for everyone – they reduce contact with a cashier, if not using self-checkout, and avoid the need to touch cash, which isn’t known to be exceptionally clean. Loyalty cards can be scanned by a cashier rather than passing it to the cashier.
  • Observe special shopping hours for people likely to be more vulnerable to the virus. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions that result in a compromised immune system are in high-risk groups. Shoppers who do not fall into these groups should shop later or at alternative hours.
  • Tip your delivery driver. Most foodservice apps give 100% tips to the driver. Key take-aways, pun intended… What does this mean? COVID-19 can, therefore, be distinguished from microbial food contamination risks and there’s no evidence yet that food is a likely source or route of COVID-19 transmission. 

Food Service, if done correctly, is good for us all. 

About the Author

Maidie Wood

Maidie Wood is global head of food marketing at SAI Global Assurance. Her expertise is in the traceability of global food supply chains, regulatory compliance and demand trends across all sectors of the food and beverage industry. She recently led the 26th APAC Food Safety conference. Areas of particular concern to her are environmental sustainability, Aboriginal rights and issues, the eradication of modern slavery and protection of native animals.

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