“…One way or the other, your actions will determine your fate not mine. I am nature, I will go on. I am prepared to evolve, are you?” Julia Roberts plays Mother Earth, conservation international. Nature has always found a way of purging itself. The repercussions have always been grave for inhabitants and the story hasn’t changed much. COVID-19, a viral infection, brings the inhabitants of the earth to their knees; the strong and weak, famous and infamous, kings and servants and any group you can think of. Suddenly, no one is more important. The need to fight does not lie on the shoulders of the physically strong or the smartest person, but the collective effort of each one of us. COVID-19 has made the strongest hygiene statement ever! Mass disinfection across cities and transportation systems; subways, streets, balustrades; doorknobs, gutters, markets, buses, aircraft etc.!
If any sector of the world’s economy will be called upon to deliver in these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the food & beverage sector. In situations like China, Italy and some other countries which are locking down cities and provinces, the populations will need essentials, particularly food and water. Owners of food businesses must therefore rise to the occasion and deliver at this critical moment. In order not to aggravate the situation, food has to be prepared or manufactured with additional hygiene precautions. It is not only in the preparation of food: every activity within the food value chain will have to be undertaken in a more hygienic manner.
Food hygiene can be defined as all measures taken to ensure the wholesomeness of food – from purchasing of raw materials and its transportation, to storage, processing, packaging and distribution until it reaches the final consumer. It is important for owners of food businesses to take the health of consumers seriously. Food does not come with prescriptions and exemptions, such that babies who are being weaned from breastmilk are given all kinds of food combinations. Food is patronised by everyone, including vulnerable groups; the elderly, infants and the sick.
These are immunocompromised groups, and any contaminated food or water presents an extra challenge to the immune system of such groups. In many cases their conditions get worse, and in some instances death could result. Hence, ensuring food is processed under hygienic conditions is a precondition for commercial sale.
Raw materials should be purchased from approved sources, and procurement officers for food establishments should avoid buying fruit, vegetables and other foodstuff from off the ground at markets. Insanitary conditions at some markets make them contamination sources, and hence leaving foodstuff on mats on the ground creates contamination risks. Most markets in the cities are infested with rodents and cockroaches which contaminate food if they are not stored properly. In the wake of the COVID-19, market women picking up food items with bare hands must be checked by buyers; every buyer must insist on sellers using gloves or improvised but effective hand coverings to pick up food items.
Care must be taken during the preparation of recipes which include raw produce such as vegetable and fruit salads. Employees must observe strict hygiene protocols when preparing such ready to eat foods. It is the responsibility of food safety supervisors to enforce such protocols to prevent contamination. If there is an appropriate time for distributing nose-masks to food handlers, this is that time.
The following are hygiene rules for food facilities: no sneezing, no coughing, no chewing, talking or singing on the production line. It is also important to wear hairnets to fully cover hair. For men, being clean-shaven is highly recommended; but if for religious or other pressing reasons you need to wear a beard, it must be properly covered with a beard-net. It is important for nose-masks to be removed and neatly disposed of whenever an employee coughs or sneezes into one. The employee needs to first remove the mask and dispose of it, wash hands with soap and running water, dry hands with a disposable paper towel before applying an approved disinfectant.
For employees working in catering facilities, tasting food must not be done in the palm as many are used to doing. This act transfers saliva into the food – especially when tasting is done multiple times with the same spoon. It is important to have as many spoons as possible for tasting. These spoons must be washed and kept in a clean bowl. One spoon should be used for a single tasting activity and dropped into a receptacle for washing and disinfection.
One public health hazard is the packaging of all kinds of food products into flexible packaging. This is usually seen in the informal sector: bread, roasted groundnuts, cashew, corn and similar foods are usually packed into flexible ‘rubber’ pouches which have to be opened with the fingers. In many cases, some pouches do not open easily and vendors are sometimes seen blowing into them. This practice must stop to prevent spread of this virus and other communicable diseases.
Personal hygiene can be defined as activities performed by an individual in order to preserve health. I have already mentioned some of the good personal hygiene rules above. It is important to note that poor personal hygiene is partly responsible for cases of food-poisoning; and in the current issue of COVID-19, particles of saliva from talking and coughs could carry the virus that causes the disease. Primary, and even secondary, packaging materials must be protected against sneezes and coughs in order not to contaminate customers. It is also advised that food handlers wear appropriate clothing, usually light-coloured, and must ensure that fingernails are cut short.
There are some members in production and our catering facilities we don’t pay much attention to, but these categories of employees are extremely important. We normally recognise those handling formulations and doing the actual mixing of ingredients and processing – but pay little attention to cleaners, off-loaders of raw and packaging materials, store/warehouse clerks, and handlers of soiled vessels or utensils. All these employees are food handlers.
A food handler is any person who works in a position where they come into contact with food or food preparation. Food handlers may be grouped into those who may come directly into contact with food processing or preparation through processing/cooking, packing or serving food; and those who come indirectly into contact with the process through storing, transporting and delivering food. This extends to those who come into contact with food preparation surfaces, such as cutlery, crockery, benches and kitchen utensils. Hence, all these groups of food personnel must be subject to the same rules and regulations as those who directly handle food.
Food companies might be the busiest group of people in the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic; for the simple reason that while people are increasingly being asked to stay home, processed food companies and restaurants may have the onerous task of supplying food and water to those who may not be able to cook at home. It is therefore important for all employees to abide by strict hygiene rules.
Reminders through visual aids in and around food facilities will go a long way to help. Professionals could be called in to help by training employees in these extraordinary times. Ensure the availability and frequent distribution of personal protective equipment for employees, so that no employee becomes the weak link. The Ministry of Health and Ghana Health Service should help in any way they can to support the food industry to deliver safe and healthy food to citizens during this period.
Johnson Opoku-Boateng is the Managing Director & Lead Consultant, QA CONSULT (Consultants and Trainers in Quality Assurance, Health & Safety, Environmental Management systems, Manufacturing Excellence and Food Safety). He is also a consumer safety advocate and helps businesses with regulatory affairs. He can be reached on +233209996002, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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