THE CORONA VIRUS (COVID-19) CHALLENGE AND CONSUMER FOOD SAFETY IN NIGERIA.
After several weeks of the country being “seemingly in control” with normal daily activities continuing as usual, while many countries around the world especially China, Italy, Spain, Germany, United Kingdom and now The United States of America, gradually attained different stages of lock down, there is now escalating concern about the possible spread of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in Nigeria. According to media reports including The Punch of Thursday, 19th March 2020, the number of confirmed cases in Lagos and Ekiti States has reportedly now increased from three to eight, fueling the fears of an epidemic of the disease here. This is not far-fetched as only one infected person initially started what has now become a major threat to the global economy. Lagos and Ogun State governments have now reacted by banning large gatherings of over 50 people. Other enlightenment measures and restrictions are also still being considered, as assured by the Hon minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire. The critical question many are bound to ask is whether COVID-19 (coronavirus) can be passed on through food or not?
Transmission of Covid-19
New details on the pandemic are continuing to emerge on a daily basis, but it has now been confirmed that this outbreak is due to a new type of Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2). It is known that Coronaviruses need a host human or animal for them to grow in. This has been confirmed by previous experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which suggests although these viruses can be passed from person to person, they generally cannot grow in food and people cannot be infected with the virus through food. The virus is commonly passed on either directly through contact with an infected person’s body fluids (for example, droplets from coughing or sneezing, or indirectly, through contact with surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on. One critical point of note is that although it is much less common, infected but people can transmit the Covid-19 virus before they begin to show symptoms of the disease due to the long incubation period. This is the main driver behind the recommendations for social distancing and reduction in gathering of large groups of people.
The standard recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to reduce exposure to and transmission of a range of illnesses include the following:
⦁ proper hand hygiene
⦁ cough/cold hygiene practices
⦁ safe food practices
⦁ avoiding close contact, when possible, with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing
Let’s examine more closely any potential risks of transmission across the food handling, processing and production chain. It is well known that there are more informal or public markets than formal markets with controlled conditions in Nigeria. This presents a real challenge because of the very low level of hygiene in food handling and preparation especially
in areas where there is no potable water. A redeeming feature, in the absence of direct contact with infected persons, is the way we generally cook our foods, at such high heat that viruses cannot survive. However, what happens in the case of uncooked foods? Many unsuspecting consumers, both in urban and rural centres, patronize street-vendors of fruits and vegetables which are consumed without cooking and sometimes without washing. It is important to examine Consumer Safety in this context, in order to answer the many questions on the minds of people.
Precautions by individuals and households
Investigation into how the Covid-19 virus spreads continues at the global level. In the meantime, however, the elimination of likely sources of food cross-contamination within the food production and distribution chain is an important precaution to observe in order to help control the spread of the virus.
In the Nigerian context, we must pay attention to the need for good hygiene and sanitation to avoid cross-contamination between raw or undercooked foods and cooked and ready-to-eat foods whether in the kitchen or on the streets! This includes observing social distancing guidelines and avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing, apart from covering your mouth and nose whenever coughing and sneezing! The washing hands of between handling raw and cooked foods; thorough cooking and proper handling of meat from our abattoirs, as well as other meat products is also very important.
Current information suggests that the virus may survive a few hours on contact surfaces, but it is known that simple household disinfectants can kill it. It is therefore advisable to ensure surfaces are kept clean, in particular surfaces where food products are being prepared or where they will be consumed.
It is important to thoroughly wash uncooked foods before consumption. Even though the means of transmission might not be through eating, contact with food that has the virus on it needs still poses a significant risk. As already stated, thorough cooking of food at about 60 degrees C for at least 30 minutes is expected to kill the virus as has been established with SARS.
Post-processing of food, contamination with the virus from an infected person or persons with suspected symptoms of any respiratory illness can be avoided if such person(s) seek timely medical attention and/or self-isolate, rather than handling or preparing food for other people during the time of distress. It is important for families to be on the look-out for helps or nannies in contact with children, who may out of ignorance attempt to hide their respiratory illness for
fear of losing their jobs, and in the process continue handling and preparing foods within the household with the attendant risks.
Recommendations for Food manufacturing facilities
It is recommended that food manufacturing facilities of all sizes, whether large, small or micro (which traditionally do not pay sufficient attention to wearing of personal protective equipment) now step up necessary precautionary measures. In meeting the required food safety standards, it is important that all food contact surfaces in such facilities are properly
cleaned and sanitized regularly, with thorough and frequent handwashing to minimize the risks of such infection.
According to the European Food Safety Authority, although food is not involved in the transmission of COVID-19, ‘open foods’ which are generally vulnerable to unhygienic practices remains a risk to consumers. Staff and Consumers alike, are expected to behave in a hygienic manner and food businesses are obliged to monitor open food displays for compliance with Food Safety Standards.
A further dimension is that it is possible for infected food workers to introduce the virus to the food they are working on, onto surfaces within the food business or to their colleagues and customers by coughing and sneezing, or through hand contact. Hence the advice to the public and staff alike is to regularly wash their hands and maintain social distance.
Food workers must wash hands:
⦁ before starting work
⦁ before handling cooked or ready-to-eat food
⦁ after handling or preparing raw food
⦁ after handling waste
⦁ after cleaning duties
⦁ after using the toilet
⦁ after blowing nose, sneezing or coughing
⦁ after eating drinking or smoking
⦁ after handling money
Recommendations for Restaurants, Supermarkets and Large Office Blocks
Many owners and managers of large office blocks, eateries and local restaurants as well as supermarkets, are starting to take precautions by temperature monitoring of all employees and customers. While there is no need at this time for employees without symptoms of infection with COVID-19 to stay off work or to remain separate from other people, it is the responsibility of business owners to ensure that staff are aware of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) situation. For larger businesses with Health and Safety departments, it is to follow the advice given by the Health, Safety and Environment Officers in such facilities, in addition to the strict enforcement of all regulations and responsibilities under food law, especially with maintaining proper hygiene practices at all times.
They are expected to, in general:
⦁ ensure that staff are trained appropriately in food hygiene
⦁ ensure effective supervision of staff to reinforce hygienic practices
⦁ provide the correct facilities e.g. hand washing, toilets, to enable staff to practice good hygiene
⦁ ensure staff and contractors report any physical signs/symptoms, before commencing work or while in the workplace.
⦁ keep vigilant and ensure that staff are not ill and are fit to work
Managing potential Supply Chain disruptions
The infection of staff with COVID-19 (coronavirus) in businesses around the world may gradually lead to disruption of the food supply chain where certain ingredients and packaging may be in short supply. Food businesses may also therefore need to consider some of the following measures in order to maintain supplies:
⦁ leaving out or substituting ingredients in a product, and/or
⦁ changing their packaging, and/or
⦁ changing their process
Where such measures are required, it is important that food businesses always remember that it is their legal obligation to ensure that only safe foods are released to the markets.
Any change to product, packaging or processing requires a review of the Food Safety Management System, Good Hygiene Practice (GHP) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) for the business. This will allow them to carry out risk assessment on any food safety issues that could result from the proposed changes, put controls in place to manage any risks identified and to document the changes made. Examples of issues to consider will include the introduction of allergens when changing ingredients and/or ingredient suppliers, safe shelf-life if packaging changes and/or the product is formulated differently, and the introduction of new microbiological, physical, chemical hazards with new ingredients. Of course, this will vary from business to business, but business owners and managers must take all necessary precautions to be prepared ready for the challenges of this epidemic.
Finally, the attention of Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition (CAFSANI), had been drawn to the fact that there are still many areas of the country, even in urban centres like Kano and Lagos, where human faeces are still being used, mixed raw with sand, for fertilizing various home garden products, especially fruits and vegetables. It is therefore pertinent in this release to advocate strongly for a public outcry against such practices in our communities to avoid spreading the virus, as new research suggest that the virus can be transmitted through fecal matter.
Prof. Olugbenga Ben Ogunmoyela
Executive Director, CAFSANI