We exploited nature, our resources, privileges and knowledge to the fullest until this outbreak hit us. It was as if after enough warnings, nature took charge and changed the pace and course of things to teach us all to be empathetic, cognizant and mindful of our blessings.
This event has been a once-in-a-century event and if we are fortunate and if we have learnt our lesson, we will not see it again in our lifetimes. But, never say never.
Apart from affecting lives at a micro level, this outbreak has had a macro level effect too, with businesses and economies being impacted tremendously.
What we should be thinking about and planning towards is how we can upgrade our businesses and practices to be in a position to be better equipped for a future calamity. Below are a some important steps and measures that most of us should adopt – both at an individual level or as standard business practices.
Handwashing has found a new meaning and importance. Something as basic and standard which we have been brought up with is undoubtedly the most important aspect we cannot ignore as individuals, food processors, handlers, restaurant employees, and others. Handwashing is, and has been for many years, an integral element in a processor’s food safety program. This pandemic has again reiterated the importance and we must ensure to highlight that it is mandatory in worker orientations and refresher sessions, and make sure that the handwash stations are all properly supplied with warm water, soap, sanitizer and a means to dry hands. Processors need to promote frequent and effective handwashing and sanitation at each stage of food processing, manufacture and marketing. These measures will protect staff from spreading COVID-19 among workers, maintain a healthy workforce, and detect and exclude infected food handlers and their immediate contacts from the workplace.
‘Cover your nose while sneezing and coughing!’ We have been taught these basic self-hygiene practices since kindergarten days. These standard protocols as ‘Do not touch your face; sneezing and coughing etiquettes, etc’ should be highlighted and enforced as critical preventive measures. Food processing being a sensitive industry should take a look at how their programs currently address personal hygiene and expand it if needed to include the elements that have been emphasized with virus control. Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, can be effective in reducing the spread of viruses and disease within the food industry, but only if used properly. In addition, the food industry is strongly advised to introduce physical distancing and stringent hygiene and sanitation measures.
Good staff hygienic practices include:
– proper hand hygiene – washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (follow WHO advice);20
– frequent use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers;
– good respiratory hygiene (cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; dispose of tissues and wash hands);
– frequent cleaning/disinfection of work surfaces and touch points such as door handles;
– avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.
The Supply Chain
One big learning at an individual level for me was have backups. From the milk vendor to my daily vegetable vendor, I was running from pillar to post to ensure deliveries. My regular vendors most of the times had run out of stock and thanks to the relationship I had fostered with these service providers supplies has not been a challenge for me till now. The same thumb rule applies to processing as well. The coronavirus is likely to disrupt the supply chain and influence ingredients and raw material supplies. Production businesses were effected as raw material vendors went out of stock for supplies. It may be advisable for food companies to line up alternate suppliers that meet food safety requirements. Our vendor relationship and backups have to be sturdy. Practices for inventory management and procurement have to be relooked. Diversifying the vendor network to 2-3 secondary suppliers along with the primary supplier and establishing great trade terms and relationship building will go a long way.
Target Consumer Group
Most of the food produce is for the general population but there are times when the target audience is a sensitive set of population like elderly, infants, children, pregnant ladies, immune compromised population, patients etc. Food industries handling such consumers should go the extra mile when formulating food safety processes. The virus has proven that the most vulnerable segment of the population were elderly, people with underlying lifestyle disorders like diabetes and immunocompetent population. Hence ensuring businesses addressing to this target group should have an additional layer of checklist to ensure the processes set are met with utmost sincerity.
Better safe than sorry//Re-evaluate risk assessments
Standards set by ISO, GMP etc. all reinforce that planning for risk is a form of quality management and doing so contextually ensures that the business’ quality management system is able to achieve its intended results by preventing or reducing the risk and also mitigating any of the potential side effects of an undesired outcome. Food processors, handlers should conduct a risk assessment on ingredients, raw materials, packaging, and the processes involved.
You’ve always got to have a Plan B which be just as good or better than a Plan A. While all our industries have an exigency planning for calamities like famines, floods, chemical leaks, toxic spills, earthquakes etc., but few of us were geared for a pandemic. The Corona outbreak has and will add a new dimension to our exigency planning and better brain storming sessions to predict, foresee and be better prepared for anything that might hit us of this magnitude. Human nature is such that we adapt and get accustomed or start getting used to things and we all must ensure that this pandemic has taught us a lesson.
As essential manufacturers continue to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, guidance about workforce and employment will become increasingly important. All processors must establish programs to educate their workforce. Orientation for all new employees, refresher sessions for current employees for all aspects pertaining to food safety and hygiene and any job-specific education to ensure that people do their work properly and safely. We need to ensure the work staff is better equipped rather than creating fear by equipping them with all best standard practices.
These are just a few thoughts on how you might make some good out of a bad situation the purpose being to highlight these additional measures so that the integrity of the food chain is maintained, and that adequate and safe food supplies are available for consumers.