In October 2018 or what will now be known as BC (Before Coronavirus) South Africa was given a wake-up call when 216 people died from an outbreak of Listeriosis contained in certain processed foods, which had been contaminated during the production process.
In weeks shelves were cleared of the product and although it was a main component for many lower income families in their diet, they steered away from it at that time. But it did perhaps make people more aware of their vulnerability when it comes to filling their shopping basket, particularly with meat and poultry – even from their trusted supermarket.
Today with the unprecedented COVID-19 virus wreaking havoc across the globe, food safety once again is being questioned. So how safe are we? Do we even think about what goes on behind the scenes, from the farms to the abattoirs, the meat breaking plant and eventually the shops and restaurants. Is the hygiene and infection control carried out at the same standard throughout the value chain, from production and packaging to transport and delivery, particularly now?
According to Burt Rodrigues, CEO of Biodx, “Bacteria, viruses and parasites are the sources of many food poisoning cases, usually due to improper food handling. Some bacteria, in small amounts won’t harm most healthy adults because the human body can fight them off. The trouble begins when certain bacteria and other harmful pathogens multiply and spread, which happens when food is mishandled. The problem is that contaminated foods don’t always look, taste or smell any different from foods that are safe to eat. So those people who ate food with the listeria bacteria were unaware there was anything wrong with their food.”
Where does the problem begin? Let’s take an average abattoir which operates from 6am – 2pm whilst the slaughtering process takes place. This is where meat or chicken carcasses get dissected and is a breeding ground for bacteria. Once this is finished other teams arrive for another eight hour shift, wearing special clothing and rubber boots and armed with biosafety equipment. They then degrease and scrub down every single millimetre before rinsing off all detergents and applying sanitiser. This isn’t just a mere wipe-down but involves a complete stripping down of all machines, processing equipment, and surfaces involved. Every part of a machine must be cleaned and disinfected before it’s reassembled.
“Most importantly, as they leave this area it must be completely sealed off before reopening the next morning,” explains Rodrigues. “This sounds fool-proof – but the risk lies in these cleaning crews doing their job diligently and effectively. A major problem is also the type of ‘superbugs’ we are finding today which are totally immune to many of the traditional cleaning agents being used.”
Farm to fork
The latest food trend of boasting ‘farm to fork’ produce creates another problem. “The processes involved can create contamination from animals and animal products and are difficult to control through the normal processes,” explains Rodrigues.” There are likely to be no controls or inspection at the various stages of processing, which leaves the public open to risk.”
Food preparation and coronavirus
Frederic Robichon, food service expert at Biodx says “There are huge concerns in the industry about the impact of coronavirus on food preparation surface areas and risk mitigation. We have developed clear approaches to addressing these concerns and work with clients to ensure there is no ambiguity in cleaning and disinfection protocols. Active control is critical to minimise the contamination of surfaces and reduce the risk of associated illness.’’ (see Q&A below)
So is the future a cataclysmic one when it comes to food production or preparation? “It really doesn’t have to be,” says Rodrigues. “If deep cleaning procedures are properly followed, from floor to ceiling, with the right products being used, surfaces should remain uncompromised. But for instance if a mincer, shredder or any other food processing equipment isn’t completely taken apart and every part thoroughly cleaned, you’re going to have major problems. In Europe today you’ll have an inspector breathing down your neck and hopefully with these regulations coming into force in South Africa the threat will be as real here.”
Coronavirus Control in Food Production & Preparation: FAQ’s
“Can this Coronavirus live on surfaces?”
“Are there additional requirements for staff personal hygiene?”
“What can I do to mitigate the risk of fruit & vegetable contamination?”