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    Food Safety In Times Of Covid-19

    We are now in lockdown 3.0 and wonder how long these tough times will continue. It is said tough times don’t last; tough people do. But, if the food is unsafe and adulterated then it will be very tough to outlast these tough times.

    Food is one of the basic needs of a human being. It is required for the normal functioning of body parts and for healthy growth. In these times of Covid-19 pandemic, consumers will be increasingly concerned about the quality, hygiene and safety issues of what they eat and drink. When evaluating a food product before buying or eating it, they will scrutinize the nutritional value and will look for characteristics that make the product safe and hygienic.

    Managing risk has become a central requirement for those operating along the entire food supply chain, from farmers, fishermen to food processors, distributors, storage and transport companies, to retailers. Managing risk and compliance with the legal requirements is essential for everyone in the food industry, from farm to fork, working to guarantee quality and safety at each step of the way.

    In this Covid-19 affected world, consumers would want to know that what they eat and drink is not only wholesome but, above all, safe. They need to have a verifiable guarantee that systematic checks and controls have been carried out from the time the product was farmed to the time it appears on the retailers’ shelves. This is the only way they can be certain that what they put on their tables is risk-free. 

    In 2006, the Food Safety Standard (FSS) Act was promulgated consolidating various laws relating to food in India and to establish the Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSAI), under Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, for laying down science-based standards for articles of food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption.

    The Food Business Operator (FBO) is that person by whom the Food business is carried on or owned and is responsible for ensuring the compliance of the FSS Act, rules and regulations. Enforcement of the FSS Act is done through the Commissioner of Food Safety, Designated Officer and Food Safety Officers (FSOs) of the states. They monitor and verify that the requirements of the law being fulfilled by FBOs at all stages of the Food business chain.

    In the first week of April, WHO and FAO issued an interim guidance document ‘Covid-19 and food safety guidance for food businesses’. The document stated: “The world is facing an unprecedented threat from the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus (referred to as the COVID-19 virus). Many countries are following the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the introduction of physical distancing measures as one of the ways in which transmission of the disease can be reduced.”

    “The application of these measures has resulted in the closure of many businesses, schools, and institutes of education, and restrictions on travel and social gatherings. For some people, working from home, teleworking, and on-line or internet discussions and meetings are now normal practices. Food industry personnel, however, do not have the opportunity to work from home and are required to continue to work in their usual workplaces. Keeping all workers in the food production and supply chains healthy and safe is critical to surviving the current pandemic. Maintaining the movement of food along the food chain is an essential function to which all stakeholders along the food chain need to contribute. This is also required to maintain trust and consumer confidence in the safety and availability of food.”

    WHO advised: “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 programmes 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 FSSAI too issued a similar advisory on ‘Food hygiene and Safety guidelines for Food Businesses during Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) Pandemic’. It is mandatory for all food business operators to implement Good Hygiene Practices (GHP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) laid in Schedule-4 of FSS (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulation, 2011 to ensure food safety and hygiene in food establishments.

    The WHO and the FSSAI documents stated that it is highly unlikely that people can contract Covid-19 from food or food packaging. Covid-19 is a respiratory illness and the primary transmission route is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact with respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. There is no evidence to date of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply.

    Recent research evaluated the survival of the Covid-19 virus on different surfaces and reported that the virus can remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, up to four hours on copper, and upto 24 hours on cardboard under laboratory conditions (controlled relative humidity and temperature) and should be interpreted with caution in the real-life environment.

    The WHO reiterated that it is imperative for the food industry to reinforce personnel hygiene measures and provide refresher training on food hygiene principles to eliminate or reduce the risk of food surfaces and food packaging materials becoming contaminated with the virus from food workers.

    Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as disposable head covers, foot/shoe covers, 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, stringent hygiene and sanitation measures; promote frequent and effective hand washing at each stage of food processing, manufacture and marketing.

    The foundation of food safety is infrastructure and hygiene. Food business operators need to introduce a high level of security and staff management to maintain a disease-free working environment. Comply with the checklist of information provided in the FSS Act – General Food Establishment Inspection Report. The prerequisite programmes (PRP) must ensure health checkup of all workers before start of their work.

    Confirmed asymptomatic workers and those workers with exposure to confirmed cases should be excluded from food premises. With restaurant takeaway food and App-based food-delivery services like Swiggy, Zomato, etc. is allowed by the government, it becomes imperative that the FBOs ensure delivery staff are well trained. Riders should be supplied with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, a disinfectant, and paper towels. Riders delivering food should be aware of the potential risks involved in contact transmission of Covid-19 while delivering food to customers.

    The tea industry is the biggest food business player in Assam. We now observe social distancing and PPEs use during plucking of leaves in the gardens. It is hoped the Assam tea factories will comply with a high level of Good Hygiene Practices (GHP) and truly invest in the infrastructure to fulfil the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) requirements.

    In past, it has been noticed that some of the tea factory owners, mostly the traders turned manufacturers, are resistant to the idea of investing in building a GMP compliant factory. We also noticed that the level of awareness about sanitation and personnel hygiene among workers too was low, with workers scampering across factory floors barefooted or wearing Hawaii sandals, without aprons, head covers, face masks or gloves, though there are plenty of advisories and standards from the Tea Research Association (TRA), the Tea Board and the FSSAI.  

    To get a bigger slice of the 2020 AC (After Covid) export market it is hoped that the Black Tea (Orthodox and CTC) factories in Assam would ramp up their infrastructure, increase health checkup of the factory workers, increase awareness about hygiene and sanitation, and provide an adequate number of disposable PPEs to all.  

    In these times of Covid-19 communicating and assuring food quality to the public by the food industry has become crucial for its continued success. Ensuring quality and safety is the key to the competitiveness of the food industry players and indeed the survival of all food business operators, brands and companies.

    The writer works independently as a Quality Management consultant and has implemented ISO Quality Management System, Environmental Management System, Occupational Health and Safety Management System and Energy Management in scores of service and manufacturing organisations. 

    He teaches Human Resource Management at post-graduate level in Gauhati University, a visiting faculty at Assam Administrative Staff College and trainer with many other public and private sector organisations. 

    The views expressed by the author are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.

    Photo credit: eatforum.org

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