Agricultural exporters and local food entrepreneurs are asked to conform with the international safety guidelines for reducing the chances of contracting the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) from food or food packaging, and spreading the pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released “COVID-19 and Food Safety: Guidance for Food Businesses” last April underscoring the need for the food industry to reinforce personal hygiene measures and provide refresher training on food hygiene principles.
“We are encouraging exporters to peruse the document and ensure that you are following the guidelines. The Chinese government, in particular, has requested exporters of agricultural products follow the WHO and FAO guidelines,” the Department of Trade and Industry-Export Marketing Bureau (DTI-EMB) said in an advisory.
The safety guidelines said personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, can be effective in reducing the spread of viruses and disease within the food industry, but only if used properly.
In addition, the food industry is strongly advised to introduce physical distancing and stringent hygiene and sanitation measures and promote frequent and effective handwashing and sanitation at each stage of food processing, manufacture and marketing.
“These measures will protect staff from spreading COVID-19 among workers, maintain a healthy workforce, and detect and exclude infected food handlers and their immediate contacts from the workplace,” the guidelines said.
Examples of practical measures to adhere to physical distancing guidance in the food-processing environment are stagger workstations on either side of processing lines so that food workers are not facing one another; space out workstations, which may require reduction in the speed of production lines; limit the number of staff in a food preparation area at any one time; and organize staff into working groups or teams to facilitate reduced interaction between groups.
“Maintaining physical distancing in retail food premises is critical for reducing the risk of transmission of the disease,” it said.
For retailers, the guidelines said they can implement practical measures such as regulating the numbers of customers who enter the retail store to avoid overcrowding; placing signs at entry points to request customers not to enter the shop if they are unwell or have COVID-19 symptoms; and managing queue control consistent with physical distancing advice both inside and outside stores.
Food workers include managers, cleaners, maintenance contractors, delivery workers, and food inspectors. These are personnel who do not have the opportunity to work from home and are required to continue to work in their usual workplaces despite the pandemic.
It further said the food industry should have Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles in place to manage food safety risks and prevent food contamination.
Food industry FSMS are underpinned by prerequisite programs that include good hygiene practices, cleaning and sanitation, zoning of processing areas, supplier control, storage, distribution and transport, personnel hygiene and fitness to work all the basic conditions and activities necessary to maintain a hygienic food processing environment.
The Codex General Principles of Food Hygiene lay down a firm foundation for implementing key hygiene controls at each stage of the food processing, manufacture, and marketing chain for the prevention of food contamination, it added.
The guidelines said it is imperative for the food business to establish a FSMS and/or HACCP team, the members of these groups need to be included in all discussions to ensure that new interventions are reviewed with food safety in mind.
If a business does not have a FSMS and/or HACCP team established, it needs to appoint one person responsible for considering whether food safety risks could arise from additional measures. This designated person must liaise with food safety authorities for advice, it said.
“There is now an urgent requirement for the industry to ensure compliance with measures to protect food workers from contracting COVID-19, to prevent exposure to or transmission of the virus, and to strengthen food hygiene and sanitation practices,” it added.