Control of germ-spreading has become the number one concern for the entire planet in 2020. The short-term recovery of the food and hospitality industries and the viability of our dining and restaurant culture in Australia in the longer term are going to depend on maintaining extremely high standards in hygiene, food safety teaching, supervision and handling practices.
Lessons from the healthcare industries
Right now, our food industries can take a mountain of learning from the studies currently being conducted in the healthcare industries. Research in hospitals and care facilities around the world is highlighting weaknesses and misconceptions in practices which signal powerful warnings for the food and hospitality industries.
Most concerning are the results concerning cross-contamination and secondary contamination as a result of misconceptions (and this is among nursing and medical practitioners) and flawed protocols in workplaces.
In other words, the greatest concerns relate, not to the general public, so much as to those who work day-to-day in facilities where the risks of picking up and passing on germs is high. Hospitals are obvious. But it doesn’t take a genius to realise that places where people gather to eat and drink and socialise are high-risk too. People are handling foods that have been prepared in busy workspaces by a multitude of busy staff, with a steady stream of newcomers. Compared to defending the quiet calm of a hospital, this is mayhem.
Germs survive longer than most people think
Essentially, germs spread from an infected person when they sneeze, cough or rub their eyes, thereby transferring micro-organisms onto their hands. Once on their hands, the germs will be spread to anything or anyone they touch. In a normal, non-covid year, this is the process by which tens of thousands of people who share a city, its public transport and shops and businesses quickly distribute colds and flus.
One sober reminder to come from all the research this year is the rediscovery that some of the most common bacteria survive 30, 60 or even 90 minutes on surfaces after a carrier touches that surface. When a group investigated the survival of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on hands and the environment, they concluded that “both Enterococcus faecalis and E. faecium survived for at least 60 minutes on gloved and ungloved fingertips.” (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8568202/)
In hospitality, germs can be transmitted from unclean hands to surfaces by a careless member of staff. The germs are then passed to those who touch those surfaces. Equally, germs can be transmitted from a customer handling anything which is then handled by staff and might be easily brought back into the food-preparation areas. Covering every conceivable possibility may seem impossible, but regular washing practices and regular cleaning of surfaces will go a long way.
A major source of some of the more deadly bacteria comes from children. We cannot expect young children to understand germs as adults do. A child who has toileted themselves may easily end up with bacteria on their clothing or hands or face and there are many obvious ways that a parent can then pick up deadly germs and then pass them on. Similarly, even simple contact with a family pet can begin a similar chain of transmission.
Important new research has plenty to show us
A study of the reasons for so many healthcare-workers becoming infected during this pandemic has revealed the following alarming 5-step sequence: (i) germs are present on a patient’s skin, or traces have been left in sweat, saliva or shed skin on objects or surfaces around the patient; (ii) germs are picked up by the hands (often gloved) of healthcare workers; (iii) germs survive for 30 – 90 minutes on healthcare workers hands and/or clothing; (iv) healthcare workers fail to adequately wash their hands or dispose of their gloves carelessly; and (v) the contaminated hands of the healthcare workers then come into contact with a new patient or with an object that will come into contact with a patient.
Again, the inferences to be taken from this into the food and hospitality industries cannot be taken lightly. Importantly, “contamination of the inanimate environment has also been detected on handwash station surfaces…Tap/faucet handles were more likely to be contaminated.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK144014/#_parti_ch7_s1_) In other words, some of the most dangerous places for spreading germs are on and around hand-washing stations.
If we are lucky, the lessons learnt from this extraordinary year will sharpen up food handling practices and highlight the importance of qualified workplace food safety supervisors. Many thousands of jobs, businesses and lives depend on it.