FAQs on COVID-19 and Food Safety

Find the answers to the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and food safety.
February 17, 2021

As the threat of COVID-19 persists throughout the country, the food industry continues to be one of the hardest hit industries from the pandemic. This is particularly evident as many regions are grappling with their second waves of COVID-19, which have caused many lockdowns to be reinstated and food businesses to close again. Now with new COVID-19 variants popping up throughout the country, concerns about the situation remain high. Also, there are still many questions surrounding COVID-19 and its relation to food safety, especially with the new variants. The following are the most frequently asked questions and the most up-to-date answers:

How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 spreads through the respiratory system. The main way of transmission is directly from person to person through infected droplets of saliva or mucus. Individuals are most contagious when they are symptomatic (e.g. coughing, sneezing, fever). This is why mandatory masks and physical distancing have been implemented in food businesses in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. If staff and customers are not within close proximity to each other, there is less chance of infected droplets being touched or inhaled. Learn more about the symptoms of COVID-19 and remember what to look out for with the CIFS COVID-19 Symptoms Poster.

What is 'viral load' and what is the minimum viral load needed to cause an infection?

First, it is important to understand what ‘viral load’ means. Viral load is the amount of virus particles in a given volume of liquid. A higher viral load, combined with longer exposure time, means that there is a stronger chance of being infected with COVID-19. Currently there is no conclusive evidence on the amount of viral load needed to cause an infection of COVID-19. However, the higher the viral load of a droplet and the closer it is to a route of infection (eyes, mouth, nose), the higher the probability of being infected. This is why personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and face shields are vitally important for use in food businesses. Learn more about personal protective equipment types and usage with the CIFS PPE for Food Workers Fact Sheet.

How long does the virus stay on contaminated surfaces?

There has been a lot of research done on COVID-19 and how long it stays on surfaces. There is still no conclusive answer to this question, however, early research indicates that it can survive on objects and surfaces from a few hours to days, depending on the type of surface. This is why cleaning and sanitizing have been an important part of reducing the spread of COVID-19. Read our blog about cleaning and sanitizing protocols to prevent COVID-19 for more information.

Why is hand hygiene important?

Washing hands properly with warm, running water and soap is the most effective way to kill the coronavirus and stop its spread. This is why it is vital that all staff in a food business wash their hands frequently using the correct hand washing method. This is not only important for preventing COVID-19 infections, but it is also a food safety requirement. Download the CIFS Hand Washing Poster and place it in hand washing areas to remind all staff of the proper technique.

Is hand sanitizer as good as hand washing?

Hand sanitizer is being used more frequently in food businesses in order to help staff stay on top of hand hygiene. Unfortunately, hand sanitizer is not as effective as washing hands with warm, running water and soap. Food businesses must encourage all staff to wash their hands using the proper technique rather than using hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer should only be used as a last resort. Not only is this a best practice, but it also reduces the risk of chemical contamination of food from hand sanitizer. Read our blog on comparing hand washing to hand sanitizer for more information.

How long does the virus last on food?

Currently, there is no conclusive evidence that shows COVID-19 lasts on food. What is known, however, is that COVID-19 survives better on surfaces that are non-porous such as metal and plastic. It is also important to remember that COVID-19 is not a food-borne pathogen that is spread through food and causes food-borne illness.

Should food businesses sterilize packaging?

Food businesses can sterilize packaging if desired, however it can be a time-consuming process. There are also other ways that food businesses can keep staff safe from COVID-19 when dealing with food packaging. Packaged dry goods can be set aside in another room and not touched for 24 hours. Packaged food for the refrigerator or freezer can be removed from packaging and put into clean containers that are labelled and dated. Be sure to wash hands after handling packaged products. These small steps can take the already small risk of contracting COVID-19 from packaging and reduce the risk even more.

Can COVID-19 spread through food?

According to the CDC, there is no evidence associated with the transmission of the COVID-19 virus through food, or that COVID-19 is spread through touching food.

What do restaurant owners/food businesses need to know and do?

Food businesses must keep COVID-19 safety protocols top-of-mind in order to navigate the pandemic and operate safely. The following are some key things that food businesses should be aware of:

Cleaning and sanitizing

Cleaning and sanitizing is essential to keeping staff and customers safe and reducing the spread of COVID-19. This is one of the main things food businesses need to be doing, even if there are only a small amount of COVID-19 cases in their area.

Download the CIFS Guide to Effective Cleaning & Sanitizing for more information.

You can also download the CIFS 7 Steps to Cleaning & Sanitizing Poster and place it in key areas in your food business. This will help to keep the 7 steps to cleaning and sanitizing top-of-mind.

Ensure physical distancing

Physical distancing is another important measure food businesses must take to keep staff and customers safe. Food businesses must know how to enforce physical distancing and ensure that the measures are in place at all times. Read our blog on implementing physical distancing in food businesses for more information.

Be prepared for rotating shutdowns

Food businesses should be prepared for shutdowns, especially if their province is experiencing a growth in COVID-19 case numbers. 

How should food businesses receive packages?

Food businesses should take extra precautions when receiving deliveries from suppliers. It is important to ensure that physical distancing is maintained between delivery personnel and staff receiving the deliveries. Also, ensure that staff members are wearing personal protective equipment when receiving deliveries. Food businesses can also work with their suppliers to find other ways to reduce contact and maintain physical distancing. For example, some suppliers are providing digital delivery receipts and accepting digital signatures.

What should food businesses know if they have to shut down?

Food businesses must have a plan in place should they have to shut down. This includes having a plan in place for the food that will not be able to be used and sold. Download the CIFS Pre-closure Checklist to ensure that your food business is ready should you need to close down temporarily.

Do Health Inspectors check for COVID-related changes?

Currently provincial inspectors are visiting food businesses to conduct compliance audits. The most common compliance issues that have been found to date are not taking proper COVID-19 precautions such as a lack of PPE for staff, a lack of physical distancing protocols and unsanitary conditions. Food businesses must ensure that they are following COVID-19 safety protocols in order to remain open and not face fines.

What should food businesses do if there’s an outbreak in the business?

Food businesses must be prepared for the unfortunate possibility of a staff member falling ill with COVID-19. Should this happen, food business owners/managers must act fast. First, call your local health authorities for next steps. Next, inform all employees about the possible exposure to COVID-19. All staff members that had direct contact with the ill staff member must isolate and get tested for COVID-19. It is also important to discard all possibly contaminated food immediately. Be sure to clean and sanitize all surfaces and items that the affected person may have come into contact with. Lastly, stop serving customers until you have clearance from local health authorities.