Safety First. Restaurant Food Handling in the New Environment
These are fast changing times, as countries around the world come together to battle the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). At time of print, there are well over 1 million global cases of COVID-19. Since this article was written several weeks ago, what you are experiencing now may be better or worse than what you are reading.
In response to these dire times, many jurisdictions have told restaurants and bars to close, except for take-out and delivery. The restaurant industry has taken a major hit as a result of COVID-19. According to the National Restaurant Association, over 3 million U.S. foodservice workers have been laid off; many more layoffs are expected to come.
A recent Restaurants Canada survey reveals that over 800,000 foodservice workers have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. One in ten restaurants is permanently closing; many more closures are expected.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.
In order to generate income, many restaurants have increased their take-out and delivery services. Most provincial food regulations have mandatory food safety training and certification. This certification requirement is still being enforced. Operators must have at least one person per shift with a food handler certification – even if there are only 1 or 2 people working in the kitchen. Another requirement is that operators have measures in place to protect food from contamination.
With this major shift in day-to-day foodservice operations, restaurant operators are grappling with how to keep their employees and customers safe. The first step of a food safety plan is to assess potential hazards. Since COVID-19 is so new, the jury’s out whether or not the virus can be passed through food. The World Health Organization says that food is not known to be a route of transmission of the virus. At date of print, there has been no evidence of cases where the virus was passed on through food. That said, it always makes sense to practice good food safety habits.
Transmission of the virus via ready-to-eat foods and food contact surfaces is another matter. Cross-contamination is a possibility if a sick employee sneezes or coughs onto take-out packaging or food not requiring cooking.
COVID-19 is a virus which needs a living host. Sick workers must not handle food. This is not a new food safety policy, but sadly because of COVID-19, many operators have stepped up their personal hygiene policies. Others are offering paid sick leave to support employees who develop symptoms.
To combat transmission, operators must develop and enforce new physical distancing guidelines for their employees who often work in a fast-paced, compact environment. Distancing measures include limiting the number of employees working per shift and per work area. Some operators have placed coloured tape on their kitchen floors to remind employees to stay within their own work zones and stay away from each other.
Many food service operators have reduced their hours of operation to allow more time for cleaning and sanitizing.
Many quick service operators have increased employee safety by redesigning their drive-throughs. Tap payment by debit/credit card is being promoted. Employees who handle cash must use gloves and are encouraged to wash their hands frequently. In some quick service chains, hand to hand contact is being reduced through the installation of metal bins so that customers can take their bagged purchases.
Operators who use delivery services should ask these companies what they are doing to ensure their employees are delivering food safely. New measures have been implemented such as contact-free curbside delivery, which supports social distancing.
In order to stop, or at least slow down the transmission of COVID-19, operators must increase their dedication to teaching safe food handling practices, enforce strict employee hygiene policies and ensure stringent cleaning and sanitizing is happening even more frequently in this new normal. Finally, the importance of ‘social distancing’ in their operations cannot be understated. Right now we don’t have a cure for COVID-19. What we must do as food handlers is diligently practice proven tried-and-true food safety strategies to lessen the impact of the COVID-19 virus.
We’re in this together. So let’s figure it out together and take these best practices with us when we come out the other side of COVID-19.
Margaret Spence is Manager, Education and Special Projects with TrainCan, Inc. A full-service provider, TrainCan, Inc supplies hospitality, foodservice, education, public health and food retail clients with management and employee-level training and certification programs in both book and electronic formats. Spence can be reached at Margaret@traincan.com