Don't want to get sick? Keep tabs on your personal hygiene


  • Wellness
  • Wednesday, 11 Nov 2020

It is highly unlikely to contract Covid-19 from frozen foods or their packaging. — Reuters

Recently, it was reported that China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) detected an isolated live SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, on the outer package of imported frozen cod while tracing for a new small-scale outbreak that occurred in Qingdao, East China’s Shandong Province.

The occurrence, which was detected on a cold chain food packaging, has revealed that exposure to the virus-contaminated packaging can lead to infection.

For obvious reasons, it has certainly terrified the public on the safety of consuming packaged foods.

Despite the possibility, China CDC has informed that the risk of cold chain food being contaminated by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is low.

Nonetheless, this incident reaffirms the fact that, until a pharmaceutical solution is found, strict health and safety precautions are essential to prevent the spread of the virus.

The question is – how can we protect ourselves, not just as consumers but as food handlers and operators?

Preventing contamination

While the report stated otherwise, the World Health Organization (WHO) and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that it is highly unlikely people can contract Covid-19 from food or food packaging.

Covid-19 is a respiratory disease and it spreads mainly through person-to-person contact and direct contact with respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Published studies by WHO show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as other viruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply.Fruits and vegetables are more prone to contamination from the environment and food handlers. — AFPFruits and vegetables are more prone to contamination from the environment and food handlers. — AFP

In this particular case in China, the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have spread when the handler touched a contaminated surface.

If an infected worker in the cold chain food industry is not immediately removed from the position, the virus may contaminate the surface of food and its packaging through the infected worker and spread further.

At this juncture, China’s National Health Commission has offered prevention measure guidelines in cold chain production and its operations to trace workers for infection.

On top of general personal hygiene, the requirement also commands loading and unloading workers to wear protective clothes and hats before handling goods, use disposable medical masks or surgical masks and gloves, and wear goggles when necessary to avoid frequent contact with the surface of goods.

In short, contamination of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in cold chain food production and operations can be minimised if all suggested preventive measures, beside practising good personal hygiene, are taken.

On the other hand, consumers should also practise good personal hygiene when handling frozen foods or their packaging.

Wash and clean hands thoroughly with soap after handling them.

Consumption of cooked meat (of domestic or wild origin), eggs and milk are not considered a means for acquiring Covid-19, stated the the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

However, contamination of the food supply with other pathogens, such as Salmonella spp., Campylobacter spp., Escherichia coli, and Listeria monocytogenes, represents a major concern for food safety worldwide.

Food can become contaminated with microorganisms that can cause human illness from multiple sources along the entire food chain, starting from infections in live animals up to the point of consumption.

Preventing such contamination will reduce food-borne illness and decrease the likelihood of new viruses emerging in the food chain.

Consuming raw foods

The WHO puts particular emphasis on good hygiene practices when handling fresh foods that may be consumed raw and/or without any further processing.

Examples include fresh fruits and vegetables and ready-to-eat foods that don’t need further heat treatment.

These foods are more prone to contamination from the environment and food handlers.

Generally, it is crucial to keep food contact surfaces, equipment and tools clean, observe good handwashing etiquette, separate the raw and cooked foods, and use clean water to reduce risk of exposure to any food-borne bacteria and viruses.

While food-borne transmission of Covid-19 has not been reported, avoiding raw and undercooked foods of animal origin (meat, eggs, milk products) will reduce exposure to all viruses and other foodborne pathogens.

This is advisable for high-risk populations such as the elderly, children aged five years and below, pregnant women and patients with weakened immune system caused by medical treatments.

Cooking food to an internal temperature of 70°C is adequate to kill the virus and any other pathogens in meat and raw foods, because the virus is not heat-resistant.Wash all utensils which come in contact with food clean by washing and if necessary, sanitising. — Positive ParentingWash all utensils which come in contact with food clean by washing and if necessary, sanitising. — Positive Parenting

Always remember that viruses cannot reproduce and grow in numbers in foods.

However, irrespective of whether it is before or after cooking, meats should always be stored in a way that ensures they do not contaminate other foods and will not be re-contaminated after cooking.

Additionally, sufficient cooking of frozen food is also encouraged as studies reveal that viruses resist freezing and can be found in frozen foods for up to two years at -20°C.

Dining out precautions

Theoretically, the virus that causes Covid-19 can spread directly from person-to-person when an infected person coughs or sneezes, producing droplets that reach the nose, mouth, or eyes of another person.

Alternatively, as the respiratory droplets are too heavy to be airborne, they deposit on objects and surfaces surrounding the infected person.

Thus, potentially, the virus can also spread when a person touches contaminated surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Therefore, proper cleaning and sanitising are essential to prevent cross-contamination – this involves sanitisation of inanimate objects such as knives, saws, transport containers and conveyor belts made of metal, plastic and wood.

FAO revealed that most pathogens, including coronaviruses, can be destroyed with most common disinfectants and sanitisers used in food processing.

A 0.05% hypochlorite solution, equivalent to a 1:100 dilution of household bleach, is effective in killing most pathogens and can be used to disinfect surfaces after cleaning.

It is important to follow manufacturers’ recommendations regarding disinfectant use, notably the need to first remove organic matter that can inhibit contact and neutralise the efficacy of disinfectants; dilution of the disinfectant; and the contact time required to be effective.

If alcohol is used as a disinfectant, it should contain a final concentration of between 60% to 85%.

However, all chemical-related disinfectants or sanitisers might leave a residue on the surfaces, and an unintentional overdose of chemicals could be of particular concern.

Alternatively, food business operators can consider a greener and more sustainable way of cleaning and sanitising by using ozonised water – a disinfecting method using water infused with ozone that effectively destroys the cells of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.

Since ozone rapidly reverts to oxygen, it does not leave any residue after cleaning.

Pay attention to personal hygiene

The food industry should not overlook the importance of food handlers in managing the transmission of viruses.

Historically, scientists have discovered that insufficient handwashing by food handlers is responsible for many food-borne disease outbreaks.

An example was Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) who was attributed with infecting over 50 individuals during her work as a cook while asymptomatically shedding the bacteria Salmonella Typhi.

A combination of peach ice cream and Mallon’s poor hand washing likely sparked typhoid fever outbreaks. Doctors theorised that the Irish-born cook likely passed along typhoid germs by failing to vigorously scrub her hands before handling food.

It is one of the “best” yet horrific example of poor personal hygiene.Kitchen staff and chefs should wear protective clothes, gloves, masks and hats before handling foods. — AFPKitchen staff and chefs should wear protective clothes, gloves, masks and hats before handling foods. — AFP

Personal protective equipment 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. Additionally, the food industry is strongly advised to introduce physical distancing and stringent hygiene and sanitation measures and promote frequent and effective handwashing, in compliance with government enforced Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs).

SOPs are crucial at every step, from food preparation to serving.

Food handlers experiencing clinical gastrointestinal or respiratory disease symptoms should not participate in food processing or preparation.

Ultimately, food safety practices in food premises should continue to be delivered to the highest hygiene standards in accordance with established food safety assurance systems.

A silver lining

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic jeopardising many food businesses due to temporary closures and reduced operating hours, there were some unexpected positive outcomes that resulted from it.

One of the remarkable positive impact is that being hygienic is no longer just a good habit, but an essential skill you need for survival.

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare has noted a significant drop in the number of food-borne illnesses in Finland between March and May 2020.

The institute believes this is because the coronavirus pandemic resulted in various restrictions and recommendations for food businesses and since there was frequent handwashing and food prepared for smaller groups, there were fewer food-borne illnesses.

Is the pandemic then making us more aware of the critical importance of food safety and environmental sanitisation for our well-being?

Will we adapt to this new normal and live healthier lives?

Only time will tell.

Dr Wendy Pek Kui Lim is a senior lecturer and researcher at the School of Food Studies and Gastronomy, Taylor’s University. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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