Foodservice Safety In Light of the Coronavirus Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many industries to a screeching halt, but institutional foodservice workers continue to be called upon to help keep communities fed by assisting in meeting food consumption demands in shelters, food banks, hospitals, cafeterias, nursing homes, and correctional facilities, among many others.

Still, the coronavirus pandemic has forced some changes to how institutional foodservice operates. As manpower thins, adjustments have to be made to preserve employee safety and maintain a strong workforce. According to Technomic, operators have also been retraining their staff and reevaluating their foodservice safety protocols in an effort to curtail the spread of the virus.

After all, the threat of COVID-19 has the added risk of not knowing which people are the carrier of the virus. Symptoms don’t show up immediately, and sometimes not at all. So what are some ways you can better safeguard your facility and your people?

The million-dollar question: Can the coronavirus spread through food?

The short answer is likely no, but this is no reason to be lax.

Cleanliness is and has always been the name of the game. At the time of writing, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that there is currently no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food. 

The virus has been shown to spread mainly from one person to another through respiratory droplets released when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These droplets can survive on surfaces or objects for a certain period. When touched by a person who then proceeds to touch the nose, mouth, or eyes, he or she can contract the virus.

With that in mind, it is more crucial for operators to get the foodservice safety basics right and amplify efforts in not just cleaning but disinfecting food preparation areas and high-touch points all over their facility.

COVID-19 and food production

 restaurant safety tips

There remains a lot of unknowns about the COVID-19 pandemic, but as experts investigate how the novel coronavirus behaves and responds, they have turned to previous outbreaks caused by other coronavirus strains such as MERS and SARS to come up with potential solutions that operators can implement to secure their foodservice facilities.

According to North Carolina State University professor and food expert Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D. via Consumer Reports, while the virus can technically get into food, it does not have the ability of foodborne illness-causing bacteria to multiply. It needs a host such as a human or an animal to thrive.

Other coronavirus strains have also been found to survive at low and freezing temperatures for a certain period. However, cooking can deactivate the viral particles as the virus is susceptible to normal cooking temperatures, as per The World Health Organization (WHO).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believes that as long as you continue to practice the same foodservice safety and food hygiene protocols you already have in place for preventing foodborne illness, your operation is in a good position to mitigate COVID-19 risks.

Cleaning and sanitizing more frequently is highly advised to prevent problems that could arise from an employee getting sick with COVID-19 or something else entirely. Remind employees to take all necessary safety precautions and to strictly follow physical distancing protocols when outside your facility.

Check with your local and state health departments regarding food production and cleaning requirements. Expect these rules to be more stringent when coronavirus cases in your area are higher in number. Here are some safe food handling tips from FDA that will be very useful in keeping the coronavirus at bay:

  • Separate cooked and uncooked food and take extra care in handling raw meat and milk to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Use a separate cutting board for meat, poultry and seafood and another one for vegetables. Wash with hot soapy water after every use.
  • Keep a food thermometer handy to make sure products are held at safe temperatures.
  • Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, and other perishable foods within two hours.
  • Follow the normal process of washing vegetables. Rinse under running water and use a cleaning brush for firm produce. Refrain from using soap or a bleach solution.

Strict practice of physical distancing

One of the major safety measures set in place to prevent person-to-person transmission of the novel coronavirus is to restrict physical interaction between people. The government has prohibited gatherings with more than 10 people and has advised everyone to practice social distancing, which involves maintaining a distance of six feet from each other. 

For their part, nursing homes and adult care centers have stopped bringing people together in the dining room for meals and have resorted to delivering meals to rooms.

Food sites that run meal distribution programs for hungry students, on the other hand, are struggling to keep staff as the lines get longer. As a result, some have resorted to limiting distribution to once a week, with multiple meals to last before the next distribution provided all at once in order to minimize close contact between staffers and the public.

Taking hand hygiene seriously

kitchen safety rules

Hand hygiene is probably the first thing in the foodservice safety handbook if there was one and those sanitizers and soaps are our first line of defense in our fight against this pandemic. Even before the new coronavirus took hold, foodservice safety rules require workers to wash their hands whenever they touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. And in the face of this COVID-19 threat, operators are responsible for strictly imposing this practice in order to significantly curb person-to-person transmission. 

Employees who handle food should already be well aware of the steps involved in proper handwashing, but reminders in the form of posters at handwashing and sanitizing stations wouldn’t hurt. It is also important to properly educate people at the front house with food hygiene and food safety practices for encompassing results especially since they are the ones who interact with other people.

Thorough handwashing should take at least 20 seconds using soap and water. Make sure to get the skin under your fingernails, in between the fingers, and your wrists. Use paper towels to turn the faucet off and dry your hands.

Wash hands before and after touching and preparing food, and after touching coins and bills, taking out the garbage, after going to the bathroom, and especially after you cough or sneeze. Speaking of coughing and sneezing, it is recommended to do so into the elbow or a tissue, which should be discarded properly immediately after. Even then, when one shows the symptoms of the COVID-19, he or she should not be on the premises in the first place.

Make sure to have tissues and alcohol-based antiseptic rubs with at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol at the front and back of the house.

The thing about wearing gloves and masks

Wearing gloves is not a substitute for handwashing. Gloves can harbor viral COVID-19 particles, so it is only useful when you don’t touch your face. Discarding gloves with care and washing your hands after will make all the difference. With that said, proper training on glove use is important. 

FDA maintains the same protocols with regards to glove use. That means no bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food. Use deli paper, tongs, spatulas, dispensing equipment, or single-use gloves instead.

Employees that directly handle food should thoroughly wash their hands and the exposed portions of their arms before wearing gloves or touching food and food-contact surfaces. Switching gloves frequently and handwashing in between glove changes is advised.

Avoid touching the rim, bowl, and back of spoons and forks as well as the inside of plates, bowls, cups, mugs, and other dinnerware and glassware. Don’t use the same gloves for food prep and non-food related tasks. Instead, use another set of gloves for handling non-disposable food service items or throwing out the trash. Promptly discard used disposable foodservice items. 

With regard to cloth masks, wearing one is recommended for workers in facilities where physical distancing protocols are difficult to follow. Make sure to wash the mask daily and to wash it properly. Consult FDA Food Code on the proper use of face coverings.

Don’t just clean, disinfect

restaurant safety topics

Maintaining foodservice safety in your facility is not just about cleaning, although it is the first step. After all, surfaces should be free of visible dirt or large debris to help the sanitizer or disinfectant do its work effectively. 

Disinfecting involves completely killing organisms like viruses on surfaces that are invisible to the naked eye. Operators are encouraged to clean and sanitize more frequently than usual to enhance their defense against the novel coronavirus.

With people moving in and out of the kitchen and all over your facility, disinfecting high-touch areas regularly is essential. A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that the novel coronavirus can survive a day on cardboard and two to three days on stainless steel and plastic. However, its stability and its ability to infect people degrade quickly.

According to University of North Carolina epidemiologist Rachel Graham via Business Insider, non-porous items like doorknobs are more likely to harbor viral particles longer, so hair and fabric may not be much of a welcoming environment for viruses. That doesn’t mean they should not be handled and washed properly though. 

As per the above mentioned NEJM study, the ambient temperature also impacts the lifespan of the novel coronavirus, with higher humidity and moderate temperatures improving the best chance of survival of the virus.

Solutions with 62 to 71 percent ethanol alcohol, 0.5 percent hydrogen peroxide, or 0.1 percent sodium hypochlorite should be effective in deactivating coronaviruses. The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA has provided a list of registered disinfectant products that you can safely use in your kitchens to properly eliminate viral particles associated with COVID-19. 

Make sure to follow the directions indicated on the product label for good results. Pay extra attention to the concentration required, especially when sanitizing food contact areas. Here are the areas that should be on your “to disinfect” checklist: 

  • Food contact surfaces and packaging
  • Service stations and countertops
  • Doorknobs, toilet flush, and railings
  • Wares, tongs, and scoops and other items used to serve or get food
  • Point-of-sale equipment such as keyboards and touchscreen controls
  • Menus, which you can opt to replace altogether

When cleaning and disinfecting, use a separate rag for sanitizing different parts of the facility. Don’t place bags or boxes of ingredients and other objects from outside on countertops or surfaces where food prep is done. Surfaces that come in direct contact with food should be thoroughly rinsed with potable water after disinfection.

Hand sink stations should always be stocked with warm water, soap, and paper towels. Place easy-to-spot reminders at handwashing stations and monitor them regularly to make sure protocols are being followed.

Equipment, kitchen tools, and appliances

Ensure proper ventilation of your facility so that your refrigerators, freezers, and other equipment are able to consistently maintain safe holding temperatures for both cooked and uncooked food. Tabletops, faucets, switches and the handles and knobs of equipment such as ranges and refrigerators should be disinfected too. 

An ice machine is hardly a safe place for coronavirus particles to survive, but the danger can come from an employee touching the ice with their hands after coughing or sneezing. Aside from practicing proper hand hygiene, a few more ways to prevent this is to make sure that the bin door is closed at all times. Refrain from using glassware to scoop ice. Instead, use an ice scoop, which should be sanitized and stored outside of the ice bin when not in use.

Most of your equipment will likely have stainless steel or plastic exterior. A simple way to disinfect is by wiping the surfaces with an EPA-approved disinfectant and water solution. The solution should sit for at least five minutes before you rinse it. After that, let it air dry. For good measure, spray with bleach and water solution for final sanitation and then air dry.

Small gadgets that are passed around and used in the kitchen on a daily basis can be contaminated and should be sanitized and cleaned after each use. This goes for knives and handheld appliances like food processors, slicers, and blenders. Cutting boards, especially those used for meat, should be cleaned with a bleach solution and rinsed with water before reusing.

Every single item on the counters, especially those accessible to diners or used frequently by your staff such as serving trays, condiment dispensers, straw containers, and cutlery organizers among many others should be sanitized as well.

Sanitizing tableware

restaurant safety rules

Whether you rely on a warewasher or use a three-compartment sink setup for doing the dishes, it is important to follow food safety protocols as outlined in the FDA Food Code especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For manual washing, there are two ways to sanitize tableware. One is through chemical sanitation, which involves the use of EPA-approved water sanitizers. Make sure to follow instructions and maintain temperatures required by manufacturers. 

You can also opt for hot water sanitization by installing a sink heater under a sink compartment. FDA requires that the water stays at a temperature no less than 171 degrees Fahrenheit to effectively destroy pathogens on the surfaces of your wares.

If using mechanical warewashing equipment, wash and dry at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for minimal risk, as per the Food Safety Authority of Ireland

FDA requires at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit of surface temperature for hot water sanitization in high-temp warewashers. Be careful not to go beyond 194 degrees Fahrenheit as the hot water could vaporize and ultimately become less effective in delivering the right level of heat to eliminate microorganisms. 

Chemical sanitization involves getting three factors right: the pH and concentration of the solution and hardness of the water. Whether you are manually washing your tableware or using a warewasher, you can get optimal results from this method by ensuring contact time of seven to 10 seconds for chlorine solutions (depending on pH and concentration) or at least 30 seconds for other chemical solutions, as per FDA.

Flow pressure should also be sufficient during final sanitizing rinse so that all surfaces of the utensils and wares will be reached and properly sanitized. The FDA guidelines also require operators to air-dry wares as opposed to wiping them dry with a towel. 

Proper garbage disposal

Strictly monitor the disposal of garbage both in the kitchen and in the dining room. Consider using no-touch waste bins with foot pedals to prevent hand contact. The garbage bin should be lined with a garbage bag and should be kept tightly covered at all times. Wear gloves when handling the trash and remove them properly and wash your hands after. Clean the inside walls of the bin using a long brush and a chlorine cleaning solution to kill bacteria. Do this regularly and never wait for it to overflow.

Looking ahead

The CDC has begun conducting antibody tests to determine how many people have been infected with the coronavirus including those who are asymptomatic. This will help identify those who have been exposed to the disease, and whether or not they have developed immunity. 

While questions surrounding the possibility of complete immunity and how long it lasts are still to be answered, the results of these antibody tests are believed to lead us to the first step in developing a solution to gradually opening the country’s workforce back up.

There’s no better time to reflect on the impact of your business on your community. The coronavirus pandemic hit the institutional foodservice industry pretty hard, and has pushed operators to evaluate the effectiveness of their foodservice safety protocols and their preparedness for disasters.

Consider putting together a Cause, Effect, and Resolution or CER statement that you can turn to when disaster strikes. A CER statement accounts for every single possible issue your facility might face during any sort of disaster. Be as specific as possible and think of every scenario--from the simplest to the most complicated--and then draft ways that you can properly deal with them. This way, you can put your business in the best possible position to respond promptly and appropriately to anything that comes your way.

It won't hurt to train your employees every now and then--test, evaluate, and refresh their knowledge and examine their implementation of proper foodservice safety techniques--to strengthen your capabilities and give your operation a better chance to rise above disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic.

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