WHO Answers Urgent Food Industry Questions about COVID-19

The World Health Organization (WHO) ran a webinar this week to answer the food industry’s most pressing COVID-19 questions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) ran a webinar this week to answer the food industry’s most pressing COVID-19 questions.

April 15, 2020 — The webinar was hosted by Sarah Hess from the Health Emergencies Programme at the World Health Organization. The panellists were WHO food safety specialists Professor Alan Reilly and Dr Peter Ben Embarek.

Are cloth masks okay to use in a food processing facility?

This question was asked by Dole in the US. Normally food workers wear surgical style masks when packing washed salad products into clam boxes. Due to these types of masks being reserved for the health and community sector, the company has been struggling to obtain its normal supplies. A representative from Dole asked whether it was okay to use cloth masks that could be laundered and re-used.

Professor Alan Reilly of the WHO confirmed that is was okay to use cloth masks as long as they were laundered frequently at 60°C or above and dried in a hygienic manner. Food workers must change cloth masks as frequently as they change surgical style masks. Professor Reilly also confirmed that it would not be acceptable to re-use surgical style masks in this situation.

What are the WHO recommendations for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting of food contact and non-food contact surfaces during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Professor Reilly explained that the usual cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting principles should be applied.

He reminded webinar attendees that:

  • Cleaning means using detergent to remove physical dirt
  • Sanitizing means using an alcohol based sanitizer at 70% alcohol or above to kill pathogens
  • Disinfecting means killing pathogens using a disinfectant such as diluted bleach

Professor Reilly confirmed that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is no more resistant to cleaning and sanitizing products than other pathogens and so there should be no need to change current procedures. Food contact surfaces should be cleaned and sanitized and non-food contact surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected.

The most important principle is to make all efforts necessary to keep the coronavirus out of the workplace. However, if a sick employee has attended the workplace then it’s essential that other employees wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and boots should clean, sanitize and disinfect any areas the infected employee has been.

What can be done when the 1 meter distancing rule can’t be respected?

This was raised by a food production business concerned about the proximity of employees along the production line. Professor Reilly explained that if physical distancing couldn’t be enforced, then additional measures are needed to safeguard the health of employees. The recommendation given was that PPE such as masks, gloves and visors be worn.

Outside of food production facilities, this may also apply to slaughterhouses, food retail environments and places where there are cooked or ready-to-eat products being sold.

If a COVID-19 patient has been identified in a processing plant and person was working closely with others in small processing room, how long will it take for others to show symptoms?

Dr Peter Ben Embarek answered this question. The rules are the same as in the community or other places where transmission is happening. It’s unlikely that a person will get infected simply by passing by someone who is symptomatic as the virus requires some close contact to transfer.

Given that, if the infected person is only in the processing plant for a few minutes then it’s unlikely that transmission would occur. However, if they have been there for longer then transmission could happen. In such cases, the current protocol in most countries is that coworkers that were in proximity to the infected person should be isolated away from the workplace for 14 days to see if they develop any symptoms.

Symptomatic employees must not be allowed to remain in the workplace.

Is the transmission of the coronavirus impacted by higher humidity environments?

Professor Reilly confirmed that no research has been done on this yet, but theoretically it would be more difficult for the virus to be transmitted in a high humidity environment. This is because the water in the air would probably act as a barrier when a person coughs or sneezes, and coughing and sneezing droplets won’t travel as far in a dry environment.

How long does the virus persist on food and food packaging materials?

This was followed up by a question on whether an assessment had been performed on the impact of this route compared to person-to-person transmission.

Professor Reilly explained that person-to-person is the main route of transmission, and there have been no reports of transmission via food or food packaging.

Some publications have found that the coronavirus can remain up to 72 hours on plastic or stainless steel and can survive up to a day on cardboard. However, these tests were performed in a laboratory environment and Professor Reilly advised caution when trying to apply this information to real-life conditions.

He stressed once again that the key is to prevent the coronavirus from entering the food premises rather than dealing with it once it’s there. Ways to do this include regularly cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and ensuring employees that are displaying symptoms such as coughing and sneezing are not allowed to work. The likelihood of the food and food packaging being contaminated by the virus is minimal.

Should people disinfect packaging materials before bringing them into the home, especially vulnerable people like the elderly?

Professor Reilly confirmed again that the risk from packaging materials is minimal and that consumers should focus on:

  • washing hands before shopping
  • ensuring baskets and trollies are cleaned and sanitized before touching them
  • not touching their mouth or nose whilst shopping
  • washing hands after shopping and before unpacking groceries.

Sanitizing all groceries once they’re at home is not necessary.

What cleaning methods should be considered for dry food manufacturing facilities?

Companies that handle dry foods such as baby food manufacturers already have stringent hygiene and sanitation protocols in place, and Professor Reilly explained that is was unlikely (although not confirmed) that the virus would be able to live on these types of food products for very long as it would dehydrate quickly.

The focus should rather be on having strict protocols around fitness to work, and preventing workers showing signs of illness from entering the food production environment.

What does the WHO think about the use of hydrogen peroxide vapors for environmental decontamination events?

Professor Reilly explained that the use of hydrogen peroxide vapors is an extreme form of cleaning that is not recommended for food environments as it’s quite dangerous and there are plenty of alternatives available.

Dr Embarek agreed. He confirmed that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is no more resistant to regular cleaning and sanitizing products than other pathogens and so current procedures should take care of destroying the virus. He reminded attendees that special care should be given to surfaces where a lot of people pass by or touch as these are the most likely areas to be contaminated by the virus.

Importantly, the coronavirus is not a bacteria and so it will not reproduce and grow in a food processing environment. At best it will survive a few hours, perhaps a few days, and existing cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting procedures are appropriate.

Are anti-bacterial sanitizers effective against COVID-19?

This question was asked by someone who had observed food businesses using anti-bacterial sanitizers despite the fact that COVID-19 is caused by a virus.

However, Professor Reilly explained that these sanitizers are probably effective against the coronavirus as bacteria can have cell walls and spores, but viruses are generally more exposed and easier to kill.

Dr Embarek confirmed that coronaviruses are easily destroyed by soap and all kinds of general sanitization products.

Should we suspend the use of compressed air for cleaning?

Professor Reilly stated that if the coronavirus is successfully kept out of the food premises, then normal cleaning procedures can be followed. If the virus does enter the premises, then a food business needs to rethink the use of compressed air as a cleaning method.

Would ozone generators work to disinfect indoor environments?

Professor Reilly hasn’t seen any publications explaining the use of ozone as a method of cleaning, sanitizing or disinfecting with respect to the virus. He re-emphasized that the main focus for every food business should be on not letting the virus enter the food premises in the first place.

Normal cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting protocols apply for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and anything that’s covered in the CODEX code of practice is sufficient. There’s no need at this time to look into new disinfecting methods related to SARS-CoV-2.

If a Food Handler is infected then cured, when can they come back to work?

The attendee also asked what measures the food business needs to take in this situation.

Sarah Hess responded to this question and explained that a person is fit to return to work when all symptoms are resolved and they have had two negative test results 24 hours apart. If testing is not available then the person should self-isolate for 14 days after all symptoms are resolved. However, Ms Hess also noted that different countries are applying different measures and time periods to assess this.

Dr Embarek further explained that it can take several weeks to fully recover and a person can still be shedding the virus even when symptom free. If possible, a test is recommended to ensure a person is free from disease.

Is there a study available about the persistence of coronavirus in drinking water products?

Dr Embarek explained that there have been no studies of the persistence of the coronavirus in drinking water. The only data seen so far is from the Netherlands where the virus has been detected in sewage water.

How long is the presymptomatic phase?

Evidence shows that people can transmit the coronavirus before showing symptoms, according to Dr Embarek. From the time of infection until obvious symptoms are observed, there is a gradual change and many people experience minor symptoms without even realizing they have them. Furthermore, a study from Singapore has shown that 6.5% of cases are related to presymptomatic or asymptomatic cases.

Is temperature monitoring of employees effective?

Dr Embarek explained that there’s no clear sequence of symptoms and people may be suffering from symptoms such as a dry cough, loss of senses such as smell and taste or diarrhoea before experiencing a fever. He further explained that people can transmit the virus with no symptoms at all. For these reasons, there has been a lot of debate about whether taking temperatures is effective.

In conclusion, Dr Embarek said that taking temperatures isn’t necessarily a bad thing in certain circumstances but it’s not a failsafe way of monitoring employees for the virus.

The CDC is recommending that a facility is ventilated for 24 hours before disinfecting if an employee has tested positive for COVID-19. What does the WHO recommend?

Professor Reilly told attendees that it all depended on what was practical, as ventilating for 24 hours may lead to a business needing to be closed down for that period. He further confirmed that if it’s possible to isolate an area where the employee was working and disinfect and sanitize this, then the premises should remain open and production should keep going. In most cases it’s not necessary to close the business if one person has had the illness.

Any final comments?

Professor Reilly wound up the webinar by emphasizing the importance of keeping the coronavirus out of the food premises and having protocols in place for employees to report illness. He reiterated the need to clean, sanitize and disinfect food contact surfaces and high touchpoints, and ended the webinar by confirming the need for food retail businesses to remain open in order to provide consumers with access to safe and adequate quantities of food.

Dr Embarek commented that after the health sector, the food sector is the most critical sector during this time, and that the continued safe supply of food to people around the world is essential.