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Food businesses and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

Updated: 2 June 2020, 4:50pm

Key points

  • COVID-19 is not a foodborne disease
  • Businesses need to review their operation and consider what other measures should be implemented to reduce the impact of COVID-19
  • Businesses with good preparations and procedures in place can minimise the impact of an employee diagnosed with COVID-19
  • COVID-19 awareness for food service voluntary training course (FREE). This free online training covers key measures recommended for COVID-19 control in NSW food retail and food service businesses.

Food safety aspects of COVID-19

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Currently there is no evidence of foodborne transmission being a significant pathway. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) provides further advice about this.

There are no direct food safety measures as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Like SARS and MERS, COVID-19 is spread via person-to-person transmission (coughing, contaminated surfaces and fomites, and close contact with an infected individual). More information for businesses can be found on the NSW Health website

The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect your business is through good hygiene practices. At a minimum, businesses must adhere to existing requirements of food laws, specifically:

  • Maintain and practice frequent hand washing when preparing foods, after going to the bathroom, and after touching the face or hair
  • Maintain thorough cleaning and sanitising of facilities, equipment, and transport vehicles (including food contact surfaces and equipment, but also door handles, light switches, floors, walls, and other 'high touch' areas)
    • Thoroughly cleaning surfaces with water and detergent and applying normally used cleaning agents is sufficient
    • Consider whether aspects of the Australian Government guidelines for cleaning will add anything to your standard procedures for cleaning and disinfection of the premises
  • Maintain strict requirements around worker health and hygiene. All staff should be trained in personal hygiene and how to wash their hands properly. Posters are available to display at handwashing stations in your business.
  • Any worker with a suspected communicable disease (such as coughing, sneezing, flu-like symptoms, gastrointestinal illness) MUST be excluded from the workplace. It is recommended that the health of all employees is reviewed on a daily basis and any workers showing these symptoms are sent home or advised not to come to work.
    • Follow the NSW Health recommendations regarding self-quarantine of individuals who are considered to be a risk.
  • Consider if there are any higher risk activities in your business that need to be managed and implement appropriate risk management strategies. For example, if you have face-to-face contact with customers, encourage social distancing and have hand sanitiser available for use.

There are penalties under existing food legislation for businesses not complying with these requirements.

Workforce impacts

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While there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted via food, there is no immunity in the general human population and the disease is highly infectious. Businesses should adopt practical measures to reduce the risk of spread between staff or to the general public.

What measures can I take to protect my workforce?

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Ensure you have reviewed the guidance for NSW workplaces from SafeWork NSW.

It is recommended that people working in the retail food service sector in NSW do the voluntary COVID-19 awareness for food service training course.

The following highlights some of the key guidance for food businesses.

Review the health status of staff

It is essential that all staff understand the importance and regulations about not working while sick

Staff checks should be done on a daily basis to review the health status of workers. e.g. do staff report feeling unwell with any flu like symptoms (sore throat, fever, cough)?

If yes, workers should be excluded from the workplace immediately and asked to self-isolate for 14 days

Reinforce good hand hygiene

Proper hand washing is one of the most effective tools in preventing the spread of novel coronavirus.

Handwashing should be increased under the current circumstances (after going to the bathroom, touching your face, after handling raw food) and should be done effectively according to guidance from the Department of Health

Additional handwashing and sanitising points should be set up throughout the business

If a business is unable to source liquid soap or hand sanitiser, a cake or bar of soap and water are equally effective for good handwashing and hygiene

Review the shift arrangements and social interaction of workforce

Changes to limit contact between workers will be effective in slowing down the spread of novel coronavirus and reduce the impact on businesses that have a staff member positive for COVID-19.

More guidance on social distancing can be found on the Australian Government Department of Health website.

Increase time between shifts or service periods (e.g. breakfast and lunch; day/night shifts) to minimise staff interaction and allow for increased cleaning

Separation of shifts will allow greater time for cleaning and sanitising (e.g. equipment, surfaces, common areas such as lunchrooms, dining areas) to minimise the likelihood of spread between staff or patrons that test positive or may have come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Limit the number of people in contact on a production floor or kitchen, where possible

In production areas or within staff teams, have the same people stand or work next to one another each day. This will limit the spread of novel coronavirus between staff should infection occur.

Minimise the overlapping of shifts/rosters as much as possible.

Review customer entry points and interaction to optimise social distancing

Businesses should consider implementing customer control methods to ensure they meet social distancing requirements. A ticket system controlling entry into the shop can help enhance customer confidence if only two or three customers are served at a time. 

Consider placing signs near the ticketing system that explain that customers should wait in line and maintain at least two metres separation distance between each other.

Review staff roles and points of contact

Restrict face-to-face meetings as much as possible. Keep any meeting to less than 15 minutes.

Identify what roles or areas within a business may be able to work from home or away from other staff.

Avoid staff congregating in carparks or other common areas after their shift.

Look after the health of your workers

Taking steps to increase staff welfare and health is essential to address any concerns about the present COVID-19 outbreak.

Have staff get a flu shot as quickly as possible

A flu shot will not protect workers from COVID-19, but it will help to reduce any combined impact of seasonal influenza and novel coronavirus on staffing and production.

Reassure staff where possible

The scale of the novel coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. Check-in with staff on a regular basis to review their welfare and address any concerns as quickly as possible.

Staff should be encouraged to be open about symptoms and express any concerns around personal circumstances if they need to go into quarantine, including job security. There is a risk they may continue to work while infectious if they believe their job security is threatened.

In addition, SafeWork NSW, NSW Health and DPI have developed a Workplace Health Management Plan Template (PDF) to support food processing and manufacturing businesses, including meat, seafood and horticulture, to manage the risk of COVID-19.

For more information regarding managing a primary production workforce in processing plants and manufacturing businesses and COVID-19, visit the NSW DPI website.

Precautionary approaches – how to deal with customers who are ill, or staff waiting on a test for COVID-19

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A customer or other individual enters my business and is displaying cold/flu symptoms. Can I refuse them service?

All members of the public have an obligation to stay at home while displaying any symptoms such as fever or coughing. Businesses have the right to refuse service and insist that anyone with these symptoms leaves the premises.

A worker is waiting for the outcome of a test for COVID-19. Should they be excluded from work?

Any worker waiting for the outcome of a test for COVID-19 should isolate as per the factsheet for suspected cases.

If you have been tested for COVID-19 and the result was negative you must still remain in isolation if:

  • you have been identified as a close contact of a person with confirmed COVID-19 while they were infectious - you must isolate yourself for 14 days after your last contact with that person
  • you have been overseas in the last 14 days - you must isolate yourself for 14 days from the day you arrived back.

Do not undertake any food handling activity or face-to-face interaction with other workers.

What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

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Protection of public health is paramount and quarantine of confirmed cases and close contacts is essential to prevent further illness, risk to human life, and associated burden on health resources.

Maintaining food security is also a critical function of industry and government. Blanket shut downs of large scale facilities are unlikely to be necessary or helpful in addressing public health, provided there are adequate measures in place to reduce the risk of transfer between employees. In many cases, businesses already have strict hygiene measures in place to address food safety and biosecurity risks. These measures will also be effective in reducing the spread of novel coronavirus among workers.

Where businesses can demonstrate good manufacturing practice, such as:

  • Staff routinely wear PPE (gloves, overalls, protective clothing),
  • Adherence to strict hand washing procedures, 
  • Adoption of rigorous cleaning and sanitising programs throughout the entire production facility, and
  • Enhanced procedures to support social distancing between employees (at least 1.5m)

A full shutdown of a facility and quarantine of all employees may be an unnecessary precaution and have other ramifications such as animal welfare, and loss of confidence in the food supply.

In the absence of the above procedures or if a business is unable to demonstrate these procedures or behaviours, diagnosis of COVID-19 in an employee is likely to have a greater impact.

 
Actions in the event of an employee diagnosed with COVID-19
Isolation of the infected employee

Any employee diagnosed with COVID-19 will be isolated and must follow the directions of public health authorities. They will not be released from isolation until they have recovered.

Rapid tracing of close contacts

A business must work with local public health authorities to rapidly trace any close contact of an infected employee to minimise further risk of spread. Prompt tracing of close contacts is essential to minimise any disruption to production.
What happens to close contacts? Close contacts will be asked to home isolate at the direction of public health authorities for 14 days. For more information see Department of Health
What is the definition of a close contact in a food business?

Where a business is able to demonstrate good manufacturing practice and hygiene, a close contact may be defined as:

Anyone who has been within 1.5 metres of the infected employee for a cumulative period of at least 2 hours at any time in the 48 hours prior to that employee first experiencing symptoms.

AND/OR

An employee who has had face-to-face contact for a period of 15 minutes or more. This type of contact may also occur in a lunchroom, small kitchen space, or other environment (separate to a production room floor, for example)
 

Will there be changes to food safety inspections/audits?

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Maintaining confidence and oversight in the high level of food safety in the food supply continues to be a significant priority for the Australian food regulators and the Australian food regulation system.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries and the NSW Food Authority (the Department) are continuing to monitor the rapidly changing circumstances and associated impacts of COVID-19 while working to protect our staff and licensed businesses.  Any changes to audits/inspections will be communicated directly to those affected.

Will audits/inspections continue as usual at the moment?

While the Department is preparing alternative auditing procedures for some activities, on-site audits will continue while department officers are still able to travel locally. Where a business is continuing to conduct operations for which it is licensed (such as processing, preparing, packing or storing products for sale), it is important that auditors continue to have access to premises to assist them to continue to perform their regulatory functions under legislation.

Audits/inspections will continue in a similar manner as currently conducted, with the following additions:

  • Increased focus on maintaining personal hygiene (e.g. increased hand washing)
  • Social distancing practices (1.5 metre separation between persons) 

To minimise the risk of contamination to audit/inspection staff or in the event that auditing and compliance staff are impacted by limitations to travel, the Department will endeavour to ensure that audits continue. Depending on the nature of the product, production method and other contributing factors, this may include the introduction of remote audits.

Remote audits will be conducted by audit and compliance staff who will review any documentation required to be maintained under the existing operating systems of a business, as well as other verification procedures necessary to manage identified risks.

How will the audit/inspection process be administered?

Auditors requiring access to licensed facilities include authorised officers of the Department and approved third party auditors undertaking audits on behalf of the Department.

During this period of rapid change, your scheduled audit by the Department provides verification as to the effectiveness of your existing food safety and management systems and ensures that legislative requirements continue to be met.

This includes verification of the effectiveness of any new procedures that businesses may need to implement to ensure business continuity in response to COVID-19, including new suppliers and changing operations due to reduced staff numbers.

While we acknowledge that access and procedures for visitors at some establishments may have changed in response to COVID-19, please be advised that our officers and approved auditors perform a mandatory regulatory function which provides assurance that your business and operations are meeting legislative requirements. A failure to provide assistance or access may result in an unacceptable audit outcome.  

How will auditors/inspectors officers access facilities?

Auditor compliance with health and safety requirements at licensed facilities will continue including where reasonably practical, any new or enhanced screening procedures that have been introduced.

Similarly it is expected that all auditors and staff of third-party organisations will continue to comply with existing regulatory requirements for health and hygiene at licensed facilities and will not present for work if they are sick, have a communicable disease, or are otherwise feeling unwell.

How will the health of auditors/inspection officers be monitored?

Audit and inspection officers will observe the same personal health procedures for COVID-19 as those expected of food businesses and the public. If audit/inspection staff report flu-like symptoms (sore throat, fever, cough), they will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days to minimise the risk of transmission.

Has the Department's workforce been impacted by COVID-19?

At this time, there has not been any significant impact resulting from COVID-19 on the Department’s workforce.
 
What are my obligations should audits be undertaken remotely?

If you are advised by the Department that your next scheduled audit will be undertaken remotely, please be reminded that you are under the same obligation to provide assistance and any documentation requested within the timeframes specified by the auditor as would be required at a site audit. A failure to do so may result in an unacceptable audit outcome.

How long is this advice in effect?

Advice on the administration of regulatory audits and inspections will continue to be reviewed as further information about COVID-19 is available.

As COVID-19 is a novel virus, businesses are urged to contact their relevant food regulator if they have questions concerning regulatory audit/inspection processes.

As a precautionary measure the NSW Food Authority has reviewed its Business Continuity Plans to ensure the agency remains operational. We encourage all food  businesses to do the same to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on your business.

Changes to planning rules for food trucks and ‘dark kitchens’ during the COVID-19 crisis

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Changes to food truck and 'dark kitchen' operations have been approved during the COVID-19 crisis.

This Order allows:

  • food trucks to operate on any land at any time, with the landholder’s permission.
  • ‘dark kitchens’ to be established in any existing commercial kitchen, such as those in community facilities, business premises, cooking schools and function centres, to allow for the preparation of food and meals to be delivered to those at home, in self isolation, or working on the frontline. Dark kitchens are also known as virtual kitchens, cloud kitchens, and ghost kitchens – cook meals solely for delivery, rather than eat-in diners.

All other conditions including not obstructing vehicle or pedestrian access and taking steps to reduce noise still apply.

While the Order is in place, all existing requirements under the Food Act 2003 (NSW) continue to apply:

Notification of operation to Councils

New retail food businesses must notify their local Council about the operation of their business and food activity details as a requirement under the Food Act 2003 (NSW).
 
Notification of operations to the Food Authority

New food businesses who manufacture, wholesale or distribute to other food businesses, must notify the Food Authority. Learn more about notification requirements for food businesses here.

Serving food to vulnerable persons

Notification allows a mobile food vendor to sell and deliver food to most in the community, however NSW businesses that serve food to vulnerable persons must meet specific additional food standards set out in the Food Regulation 2015 (NSW) Vulnerable Persons Food Safety Scheme.

Businesses delivering food to an aged care facility must apply for a Food Authority licence online (or download a form, print and post it) (for assistance see the licence application guide). 

Other requirements

Food Safety Supervisor (FSS)

Food businesses, including those operating mobile food vending vehicles and ‘dark kitchens’, may need to appoint a FSS if the food they prepare and serve is:

  • ready-to-eat
  • potentially hazardous, for example, needs temperature control
  • is not sold and served in the supplier's original package.

Learn about FSS training requirements on the Food Safety Supervisor page.

Mobile Food Vendors

Mobile food operators are considered a retail food business and must comply with all food safety standards. More information is available on the Mobile food vendors page.

Existing Commercial Kitchens

Appropriate food handling practices to ensure the sale of food that is safe to eat must continue to be observed.

New domestic kitchens are considered a retail food business and must comply with all food safety standards. More information is available on the Home-based business page.

Operators of domestic premises need to pay particular attention to the following to ensure:

  • adequate hand washing facilities are available - check with local council on what is considered adequate
  • food is kept protected from pests and vermin at all stages, including storage of ingredients
  • premises are designed to exclude pests where practical
  • adequate refrigeration capacity is essential - overloading domestic refrigerators and constantly opening the door means food takes longer to cool and harmful microorganisms have more chance to grow
  • refrigerate foods in small portions to allow proper cooling
  • refrigerated foods should be kept below 5°C. 

Operating a food delivery service from a domestic kitchen has additional requirements and obligations outside the scope of food legislation. Please check with your local council for more information.

Labelling Requirements

All food businesses, including mobile food vendors and domestic kitchens packaging food for sale,  must ensure that the foods they sell meet the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code for labelling and information requirements.

Food businesses in NSW must also provide allergen information in food by either:

  • declaring allergens on the label (usually in the ingredient list)
  • displaying information about allergens next to food on sale (if it’s not packaged)
  • providing information about food allergens in food if requested by a customer.

COVID-19

The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect your business is through good hygiene practices. At a minimum, businesses must adhere to existing requirements of food laws.

All food businesses must also ensure employees and customers practice social distancing and other recommended public health practices.

Preparing to recommence operations

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It is important that food businesses (such as cafes and restaurants) are well prepared to recommence modified business operations after non-essential business restrictions have been lifted.

Before you recommence operations, particularly serving customers on-site, you should check for current advice regarding business restrictions and whether any additional specific guidelines or requirements to recommence food business operations in NSW have been applied. This can be done on the “What you can and can’t do under the rules” section of the NSW Government website.

To assist your preparation, food regulators have developed a voluntary checklist for food businesses in all states and territories who are preparing to recommence operations. Food businesses should use the checklist to make sure they are ready to recommence operations.

The checklist is available on the FSANZ website and can be downloaded from the following link - Food safety checks for food businesses (such as cafes and restaurants) preparing to recommence pre-restriction operations.

All food businesses must continue to comply with existing requirements under the Food Standards Code, with particular vigilance on maintaining good hygiene practices. That includes checking fridges and freezers are still working, thermometers read properly and that allergen information you provide remains accurate. Staff who report symptoms of illness should stay at home and seek medical advice.


 

For more information