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Food businesses and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

Updated: 27 March 2020, 3:45pm

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
     

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

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 areas)
  • Maintain strict requirements around worker health and hygiene. Any worker with a suspected communicable disease (such as coughing, sneezing, flu-like symptoms, gastrointestinal illness) MUST be excluded from the workplace.

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.

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.

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 (tested negative).

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 24 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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Will food safety audits/inspections continue as usual at the moment?

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. Any changes to these activities will be communicated directly to those affected.

How will the health of food safety auditors/inspectors be monitored?

Food Safety 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.

How will the audit/inspection process be administered?

Audits/inspections provided by Food Safety auditors and inspectors 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 it may also be necessary to introduce alternate verification mechanisms, such as virtual auditing (video conferencing), desk audits or provision of electronic data on key food safety system performance measures as a means of demonstrating compliance with regulatory food safety obligations. 

How long is this advice in effect?

Advice on the administration of regulatory foods safety 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 food safety audit/inspection processes.


 

For more information