Q&A for smaller food operations | COVID-19 Knowledge Hub

COVID-19 is known to transmit from person to person, or from the droplets that are generated when an infected person sneezes or coughs. World Health Organisation experts say that it is highly unlikely that people can contract COVID-19 from food or food packaging.  In line with good food hygiene practices, open food should be covered as soon after preparation as possible. Please refer to our IFST COVID-19 statement.

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There will not be a shortage of food per se, but there may be interruptions to supply chains of some products, especially those that are imported, and where restrictions in other countries are affecting production or logistics. 
 
If it becomes necessary to find an alternative for an ingredient, make sure that: 
  • You obtain trustworthy information from your alternative supplier, bearing in mind in times of scarcity there are increased threats of poor quality, dilution, contamination or fraudulent substitution. 
  • If you operate a supplier approval system, then the normal controls should be in place, e.g. specifications, third party approvals, goods inwards inspections, etc. 
  • Your alternative material has sufficient shelf life remaining for your purposes 
  • Apply allergen information and controls as necessary 
  • Good traceability data is provided 
 
If you need to preserve your supplied material by freezing, then:  
  • Ensure that it is suitable for freezing 
  • Apply a date of freezing and a shelf life 
  • Make sure sufficient shelf life is left - do not freeze products on the last day of life 
  • Remember to track usage of both the frozen stock and what you have ready to use so you have sufficient time to defrost and replenish. 
  • When defrosting (if that is necessary) note the defrost time and assign a defrosted
  • Shelf life/discard time – most likely no more than a day or two.    
Further Information
 

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There are no additional temperature control requirements to manage COVID-19, just follow your usual good food safety controls. However, you should ensure that your fridges, freezers, cookers and other process equipment are operating well and that you have robust contingency plans in the event of any breakdowns. 
 
Please remember:  
  • Separate susceptible materials [e.g. raw meat, raw fish] away from lower-risk materials [e.g. vegetables]. This is very important if you are sending outboxed products  
  • Meat, fish and other products normally requiring refrigeration [or maintained in a frozen state] should ideally be packed in separate bags with an ice pack to ensure that they are kept fresh and do not contaminate other goods.  
  • Allergen controls should not be relaxed, whether internally or on products/ingredients destined for onward distribution. 
Further Information:

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Normal cleaning routines and record-keeping should be continued. The importance of good hand hygiene cannot be overemphasised. This is true not only of reducing bacterial loads but of reducing viral ones as well. Hand washing should be performed frequently, using the best techniques. 
 
You will need to identify common contact points such as door handles, touch screens and hand-rails etc. paying particular attention to those surfaces which are in constant use and shared. You should also consider disinfecting such personal items as car keys, mobile phones, etc. 
 
There are a number of suggested agents – all should conform to BS EN 14476 for their effectiveness. These include alcohol solutions (greater than 60% strength), peracetic acid, sodium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide, and others. You should have a conversation with your cleaning chemical supplier, who should be cognisant of the requirements. You may even consider creating additional cleaning instruction cards and an example is given below in the first reference. Be careful in the application of these chemicals – do ensure that the people using them have adequate training in the safe use and disposal – they are potentially dangerous in themselves. Have the Health and Safety datasheets to hand such that you can refer easily to precautions and other useful information. 
 
Further Information 

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For perishable items with a “use-by” expiry date, it is both illegal and unsafe to extend the shelf-life.  “Use-by” dates are applied to products where there a serious risk to food safety if the shelf life is exceeded.   
 
If the products are bought–in, you cannot and must not change the shelf life given by the manufacturer.  If you manufactured the product(s), then you should have the data on which the shelf-life was determined and know what margin you gave.  You cannot change what has already been made and labelled, but if you have product yet to be labelled, you could assign a longer shelf life, provided you have the safety data to back it up - preferably from shelf-life tests conducted by a reputable microbiological laboratory.  
 
For products with a “Best Before” expiry date, then the main risks are quality rather than safety.  If products are bought-in, try to contact the manufacturer for their advice on what will change and what limits they would advise.  As in all things, write down what you have done, [asking the manufacturer to confirm his advice by letter or e-mail] and label the products clearly with their new expiry date.
 
Lastly, you could freeze products.  This needs to be done with sufficient life remaining on the product for it to be used safely and for quality not to be noticeably impacted.  Products should be frozen quickly, (cases can be broken down to individual products as necessary), and do not overload the freezer.  Products should be labelled clearly with when frozen, a frozen life, and labelled with the date when defrosted.  Instructions such as “Once defrosted use within 2 days” should be used. 
Further Information

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You may use re-work if necessary, but you need to take note of traceability, and allergens.  You cannot extend the life of the product by re-working it into a new product.  

Any products to be used as re-work should be properly labelled (what it is when generated), and written records maintained, as you will need to prove traceability.  Depending on the product, it may be appropriate to only allow a small percentage of rework in each batch, as larger amounts may impact on quality (colour and texture for example).  Rework should only be used in the same product – to make sure that the ingredient, and especially allergen, statements still hold true.

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Normal issues of PPE should be maintained, and there should be no relaxation in the rules surrounding its use, its care and replenishment. The current thinking on the wearing of face masks is that they give a false sense of security, and may lead to a reduced social distancing of 2-metre exclusion zones - which is more important in reducing infectivity. In addition, they are uncomfortable and are unsuitable for use in areas where there is a build-up of condensation. It may well be that visors are a functional alternative to protect workers from infection. 
 
Please note that the distancing rules are crucial and it may be necessary to allocate tasks and staff such that they are separate – either by space or time allocation within the production schedule. Consider, too, the avoidance of socialising at meal and other work breaks. 
 
If you can split your staff into separate teams, and better still, confine them to particular areas/departments, this will go some way to reducing spread. You may even consider the wearing of different colour hairnets, such that any staff that are out of place can be easily identified. Such practices are well known in operations that have both low risk and high-risk operations. 
 
Patently, staff who believe that they are infected should not report for work. They should abide by the Government guidance to self-isolate, together with their families.  
 
Of course, there are already existing guidelines for fitness to work, which are given below – these include rules about staying away from work in the event of sickness from the stomach and related complaints. 
 
It may be necessary to use volunteer and temporary staff who have not previously been used to working with food. It is essential that they receive robust training in food hygiene. There are many providers of online courses. IFST cannot recommend any particular supplier – you will need to do your own searches, and decide which are appropriate and respected. 
 
Further information 

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On closing down: 
  • Clean and sanitise all equipment and the working surfaces fully before closing down.  
  • Clean the floors. 
  • Ensure that all non-essential equipment is switched off and disconnected (including office equipment). 
  • If possible, where equipment is left running (refrigeration, electronic fly killers) that you check these at least weekly.  Remember to keep records to demonstrate that the units have been working efficiently. 
  • If water is stored on-site, consider draining the tank if practicable.
  • Make sure all doors windows (internal and external) are closed to help prevent fire and continue to manage pest control. 
  • Empty all waste bins.  Inform waste collectors, and ensure that they have access to the external bins. 
  • Turn all taps off.  If possible, turn water supplies off 
  • Ensure that your contact details are available to site neighbours, police, alarm contractors and other essential suppliers.  
  • Ensure that your pest controller has access the site exterior, as a minimum – and instructions on how to access the premises if necessary. 
  • Remember to bag and seal any clean PPE. 
  • Take photos of how you left the place.
  • Consider informing EHOs that you have temporarily closed down.
When starting up again:
[This will depend on how much you have been able to access the site in the meantime] 
  • Do a complete site survey to check for any access (pest or otherwise), leaks, etc. (use the photos taken when closed down to help you).   
  • If water was turned off when premises closed, then when you re-open, let the water run from all water outlets for a good 15-30 minutes.  
  • Check the water tank is clean and not damaged before re-filling
  • Check expiry dates on products still on stock (especially ambient and frozen stocks) 
  • Get your pest controller on site ASAP to re-instate their controls/monitoring 
  • Clean and sanitise all work surfaces, equipment/utensils and workwear. 
  • Clean the floors.
  • Remember to inform all the people you originally informed of your closure that you have resumed operations, including your EHO. 
Further information:

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If you are going to change the type of your food operation from say a café or restaurant to a food delivery company or ready meals supplier you need to contact your EHO and let them know. They can give you advice on any implications this might have. This is particularly relevant to foodservice companies who no longer have a restaurant/pub or other catering outlets for their product. 
 
The survival plan may be to produce consumer packs to prepared or re-heat at home for selling in local shops and other outlets. This requires considerable preparation as there will be a number of constraints that the manufacturer of retail products is only too well aware of. You may also be considering breaking down larger commercial size packs into smaller size packs for consumers, e.g. 25kg sacks to 1kg bags. 

When selling food directly to consumers, whether ready meals to be re-heated at home or smaller consumer-sized packs of food, probably the most challenging area is in the labelling of the product. The larger commercial food packs sold business to business do not have all the labelling details on them that are needed for when a pre-packed food product is sold directly to consumers. There are several legal requirements, highlighted in the reference given below, but if you are selling to consumers, you should remember that you will need to provide a declaration of ingredients, tell them how to cook or use the product, how to defrost it [if it is frozen] and tell them how to store it. The latter will mean that you will have to apply a “use by” or “best before” date – the first for perishable products, and the second for frozen and ambient, shelf-stable products. Allocating a shelf life is not easy – you cannot assume that your product will have the same shelf life as other examples you see on the shelves. For safety’s sake, you should conduct your own tests - for example by running tests where you gauge the quality of the product over a number of days. With perishable products, you must have the shelf life confirmed by a microbiological laboratory or apply a very short shelf life [e.g. 1-2 days under refrigeration]. If you advise freezing by the customer to extend the shelf life of your product, please remember to add instructions.  
 
Under no circumstances should you abuse these shelf lives – amending use-by dates is illegal and poses a serious food safety risk.  It is also illegal to sell food beyond its use-by date.
 
Consumers need to know and have the right to know, the contents of every pre-packed food product they buy – especially if they have a food allergy or intolerance where they must avoid certain foods. You will have to indicate the ingredients you used in the product, usually listed by decreasing amounts of what has been used in the recipe. Note, too, that nutritional labelling is a general requirement. It must be stressed that a vital requirement is to state the allergens contained in the product. Be careful to consider any “new” ingredients you may be forced to use. 
 
NOTE: If you decide to use the internet as one of your sales channels, these rules also apply. If you don’t feel confident in this area of legal compliance, then you should find that your local Trading Standards Officer/Environmental Health Officer can help. There are others who can help, and you could search for consultants who specialise in the subject. 

Further Information:

 

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You may need to deal with new couriers, distributors and carriers.  Make sure that the company you use have similar precautions to you in place for protecting their staff, and have rigorous sanitation procedures for the vehicle interiors, including the driver’s cabs. Their vehicles should not be used for transporting food as well as non-food products e.g. parcels, building materials, painting and decorating supplies, tools. 
 
Encourage them to keep records of maintenance, cleaning, and if refrigerated, proof of good performance throughout the delivery. Remind them about rules on social distancing, as and when they are doing their deliveries, and at driver’s rest stops.
 
Keep your own record of the temperature of your products and foodstuffs on despatch, the time the vehicle left, exactly what was on it (with batch numbers if possible), the driver’s name and the vehicle registration number.  You are transferring the responsibility for your foods to another business and these records will form part of your evidence if there is a problem later on. 
 
Further Information: 

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You should maintain all the food risk management controls you need to guarantee the safety of your food. This will include:  

  • Staff personal hygiene 
  • Traceability from raw material through work in progress to finished product and delivery;  
  • Review of HACCP to take account of any ingredient changes and any process change forced upon you, for example; postponement of any third-party certification audits and the implication on your Certification 
  • Ensuring that your new product development is risk assessed to ensure that it is in line with your current HACCP Plan and effective food safety controls are in place
Further Information: 

These are just some of the aspects that you need to consider, and we recognise that they are not exhaustive.  There are some very useful guidance documents available – many are sector-specific examples of this are the excellent series of industry guides to good food hygiene. 

Please do not feel shy about contacting expert professionals to advise and support you.

The Institute of Food Science and Technology runs a Consultancy Directory and there may well be people on our Food Safety register or Professional Auditors and Mentors register who may be able to help.

Our thoughts are with you – we will attempt to support you through this current crisis. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch by email: info@ifst.org  

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With social distancing measures being put in place across the country, this has led to an increase in demand for on-line purchase of food and as a result food box and ready-meal deliveries, haves increased significantly. Box schemes deliver fresh produce to homes, providing a range of vegetables, salad, fruit, eggs, dairy product including milk, and fish, meat and poultry, and sometimes grocery products too.  There are variations in the type of boxes that could be delivered: 
  • Vegetable only where all the items will be cooked before eating
  • Fruit and vegetables where there are a mixture of ready-to-eat items and items that will be cooked in the box 
  • Mixed boxes (fruits, vegetables, dairy products, eggs, fish and meats)  
Ready meals, desserts and sandwiches are also being prepared for delivery to homes – either for immediate consumption, cooking or re-heating or for storing for future use in refrigerators or freezers. Temperature control is critical for these products so best practice must be followed at all times.  
 
Food preparation: 
All food must be delivered to consumers in a way that ensures that it does not become unsafe or unfit to eat.
 
It’s very important to store food properly to keep it safe. Storing food in sealed containers and at the correct temperature protects it from harmful bacteria, stops objects falling into it, and avoids cross-contamination with other ingredients. Therefore, any raw and cooked fish and meats must be stored separately, securely, at the correct temperature and away from fresh fruits, salads and vegetables to prevent cross-contamination, preferably in separate containers.  
 
Accompanying information: 
All products with more than one ingredient must be accompanied by information describing its composition, including any allergens that are present. 
Any dishes or meals prepared for further cooking or re-heating at home should have clear instructions included on a label or leaflet to make sure the food is prepared safely at home. 
Any dishes or meals prepared for storing for use at a later date should have a clear use by date and instructions included on a label or leaflet to explain how to store it properly (chilling or freezing instructions) and how to prepare it safely at home e.g. defrosting and cooking instructions. 
 
During Delivery (temperature)
  • If boxes and bags are needed to keep hot food hot or cold food cold, then choose appropriate insulated carriers so the correct temperatures can be maintained. The containers should be made from a material that is easy to clean and disinfect.  
  • Hot food should have been cooked at the appropriate temperatures. If being provided hot, food should be provided to customers at 63°C or above. 
  • If food has been cooked and then it chilled it must be chilled in line with regulatory guidance and cold food being transported should have a temperature of 8°C or colder. To achieve this, it is recommended to keep distances short and limited to within a 30 minute travel time from the food preparation site. 
  • Certain foods should be chilled at all times to ensure quality and safety.  This food group includes dairy products, as well as raw and cooked fish and meats. 
  • Chilled food can be kept at ambient temperature for a maximum of four hours, in one continuous period, so you do not have to have a chilled compartment or box for a short journey. However, if a chilled product is kept at a temperature of more than 8 degrees Celsius for more than four hours, it should be destroyed.
Cross-contamination: 
  • Food businesses must also identify and remove possible cross-contamination risks in the delivery process. This can be done through packaging fruit, vegetables, dairy products, cooked and raw fish and meat separately, securely and storing them appropriately in-transit to avoid contamination from the vehicle and from cross-contaminating each other through any spillages.
  • If an allergen-free product or meal has been ordered, it should be separately packed and clearly labelled when delivered which container it is in. 
  • Vehicles used for food delivery should be suitable for transporting food, i.e. clean, dry and not previously used for transporting odorous or toxic materials, glass, paints, solvents, building materials, etc. 
  • Drivers must also follow food handler hygiene good practices – including washing or sanitising hands before and after collection and keep uniforms/clothing clean and tidy. 
At Delivery Destination: 
  • Place the order at the customer’s door and make contact by knocking on the door/ ringing the doorbell or phoning the customer 
  • The driver or rider should move back from the order to allow for a two-metre social space. Social distancing of two metres must be used at all times.   
  • The food product must be taken into the house and put in appropriate storage as soon as possible. 
 
Further Information:

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This page is part of the IFST COVID-19 Knowledge Hub

This section is part of our COVID-19 Knowledge Hub. IFST have created a COVID-19 Knowledge Hub to consolidate advice, practical guidance and links to resources to support individuals, smaller food businesses and larger food operations.  Find out more here.