When you are working in a kitchen, food production, or food retail area, you sometimes literally have the health of the people who eat your food in your hands. The hands that you use to touch the food you make could pass on some pretty nasty bugs, and, while this can produce some unpleasant symptoms for everyone, for the elderly or children it could result in serious illness.
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. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply.
However, it is possible that someone may become infected by touching a contaminated surface, object, or the hand of an infected person and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes. This can happen, for instance, when touching door knobs or shaking hands and then touching your face.
Recent research reported that the virus can remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, up to four hours on copper, and up to 24 hours on cardboard. However this research was conducted under laboratory conditions (controlled relative humidity and temperature) and should be interpreted with caution in the real-life environment.
WHO recommends that people who are feeling unwell should stay at home. Staff working in the food sector need also to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19. It is therefore recommended that food business operators produce written guidance for staff on reporting COVID symptoms and on exclusion from work policies. The most important issue is for staff to be able to recognise symptoms early so that they can seek appropriate medical care and testing and minimise the risk of infecting fellow workers.
Clearly, then, it is important that you minimise the risk of passing along any infection you may have to your consumers.
That doesn’t mean you need to lock yourself in a cupboard at the first sneeze. Although, it would be better if that sneeze was directed away from the food, please.
Making the decision to go to work or not, and what precautions to take if you do, will come down to the current government guidance, common sense and, of course, your own level of sickness. So, you will need to assess yourself and decide what you need to do. If you work in a managed food preparation environment such as a production facility, then your supervisor will help you to make the decision.
Common sense things you can do to prevent infections spreading:
- Don’t be a hero! It is easy, particularly if you run the business, to put your sickness aside and work anyway. While it is never good practice to work when you are ill because it will usually make you feel worse, for a food preparation worker this is simply not acceptable. The chances are that you will spread your bugs to a lot of other people, so please stay home or arrange cover.
- Bacteria love hands! Washing and more washing is always the best option for you. While some viruses, such as norovirus (see below), are very difficult to deal with, a good washing regime will stop most bacteria spreading.
- Coughs and sneezes spread diseases – well, sometimes they do. Although a cold and similar illness is unlikely to spread through the food you make, a sneeze or a cough can carry other infections such as Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause a range of infections from boils to pneumonia that can spread.
- Norovirus must be stopped as soon as possible! Any of the following symptoms should trigger an immediate ban from the food preparation area. If vomiting occurs near food then the area will need disinfecting immediately and all food must be destroyed. As a worker, if you have (or start to develop) these symptoms then do not work with food until you have assessed what is causing them. The potential for spreading norovirus is very high, and remains so quite a while after the disease has apparently passed, so you should remain away from work for 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped. Symptoms are:
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea and fever
- Skin infections and eye issues! Some infections, such as boils, infected wounds and scaling conditions, do not preclude a worker from continuing to prepare food as long as the affected area can be covered in a way that means the chance of infection is reduced to a safe level. However, any area that cannot be covered, such as eyes and noses, are a danger, and the person demonstrating symptoms must not work with food.
If in doubt – stay out of the kitchen.
Eyes, noses and ears (along with the other bits of the body that shouldn’t be touched around food) are sources of infection, and contact with them should trigger hand washing. This will help keep the risk of infection down.
It is also worth remembering that some things, such as morning sickness, the side effects of medicine and a good old fashioned self-inflicted hangover, do not necessarily preclude the worker as long as appropriate washing and other precautions take place.
We cannot cover everything in a short article like this, but the sources and ways of preventing transmission are covered in a food hygiene course.
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