COVID-19 and the food industry: Keeping employees and customers safe


As sectors of the economy reopen for trade, business owners must take proactive steps to minimise the spread of COVID-19. Here, two of the NICD’s experts share all that food-related businesses should know in order to respond as well as operate in the time of COVID-19.

Listen to this podcast – a part of the Discovery COVID-19 podcast series – and hear from two experts based at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) - Dr Juno Thomas, Head of the Centre for Enteric Diseases and Dr Ahmad Haeri Mazanderani, a clinical virologist within the Centre for HIV & STIs. They give brilliant advice to owners of food-related businesses around how to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the food industry.

Listen to the podcast:

Keep employees and customers safe

“An employer should consider the health of their employees, their customers and any other contractors that might be coming into the workplace,” Dr Thomas says. She says employers need to take two main steps:

  1. Put all administrative and physical controls in place to keep workers as safe as possible and to minimise any transmission in the workplace.
  2. Keep customers as safe as possible by minimising transmission between customers and employees.

“We know COVID-19 is not transmitted by food,” she says, “but by infected droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and these droplets land in the environment and contaminate the surfaces. If you’re in close contact with someone who is infected, you can also breathe in the droplets and become infected that way.”

Education is key

Dr Mazanderani says education is important for employers in the food industry. “Staff and customers need to understand how COVID-19 spreads and how they can protect themselves from being infected,” he says.

“The best way to make sure people are protected is to maintain good hand hygiene as well as respiratory hygiene and to stick to these principles,” he says. “Educating through signs as well as audio recordings for staff and the customers is important so that awareness is raised and maintained in the industry.”

“Employers should make sure that staff are monitored daily for symptoms that could suggest COVID-19 infections,” Dr Mazanderani adds. “These include fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, a loss of smell or taste, as well as myalgia (muscle pain that isn’t caused by any known or underlying conditions).”

He says employees should report any possible COVID-19 symptoms to their employer. “They should not be coming to work if they have any symptoms. They should seek assistance from a healthcare provider and ideally, they should be tested as well before coming back to work.”

Give easy access to hygiene measures

Dr Mazanderani gives advice on how to maintain a healthy work environment:

  • Make sure there is access to hand-washing facilities and appropriate cleaning materials.
  • Wipe surfaces with the right cleaning materials after each individual customer has been at the counter.
  • Design the environment to maintain physical distancing of 1.5 to 2 metres between each person.

How to minimise the risk of COVID-19

Dr Thomas says the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus within the food industry is not from consuming prepared food, but from “contact with environmental surfaces and with other people”.

“Additional controls will focus around creating a healthy environment that minimises the risk of transmission of COVID-19 between employees and between employees and customers,” she says.

To do that, employers need to:

  1. Put strict social distancing measures in place to limit contact between employees, and between customers and employees.
  2. Prioritise hand hygiene by giving employees easy access to hand sanitisers and hand-washing facilities with soap and water.
  3. Give employees enough breaks to practise hand hygiene.
  4. Make appropriate respiratory equipment like cloth face masks readily available for employees.
  5. Identify frequently touched surfaces for routine disinfection, for example workstations, cash registers, payment terminals, door handles, tables and countertops.
  6. Give drivers or delivery workers hand sanitiser, cloth masks and disinfectant spray or wipes to keep their work environment safe.

“In general, all food should be shielded from possible contamination from employees and consumers,” she says. “This is to protect everyone not just from COVID-19, but more importantly from food-borne viruses, bacteria, and parasites.”

What to do if an employee contracts the virus

Dr Mazanderani says anyone who has come into close contact with a person with COVID-19 should be in quarantine for 14 days. “If that person develops symptoms, they need to go see a healthcare provider and follow advice, and if they need a test, they should access testing as well.”

“In terms of the workplace, there should be a deep cleaning of the surfaces before the shop reopens to make sure that there are no contaminated surfaces and the risk of ongoing transmission is stopped,” he explains. “All staff who have had close contact with a person with COVID-19 should be quarantined, ideally, employers should stagger the workforce so that not all the employees are at the workplace at the same time.”

For more advice and insight for employers, check out our Discovery COVID-19 information hub. Stay informed. Stay healthy. Stay home.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID-19.

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