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Food and beverage lead the way in COVID-19 hygiene solutions

Whether it be a hospital, aged care facility, catering or any other commercial kitchen, the way these premises will be designed and built has changed forever according to Total Construction’s Tony Tate and Rob Blythman. Tate, the company’s general manager of Food and Beverage, and Blythman, who is the general manager of Total’s Engineering Construction Group, both know that the pandemic has altered the way processes are carried out in order to make sure customers stay healthy.

The good news is that the food and beverage industry is leading the way because it already has stringent controls in place when it comes to health and safety.

“With COVID you’ve got a very high level of hygiene in food manufacturing. It’s not just for longish shelf life of products, it is also for health and safety reasons,” said Blythman. “Food manufacturing has been doing that for at least 20 years in Australia. What is happening now with COVID is that a lot of food service type people, who run everything from aged care facilities to hospitals to restaurants and hotels, will have to go through the same levels of hygiene that food manufacturing does if they want to stop the ability for the likes of COVID to spread – or any infectious disease for that matter.”

Tate said that there are three important aspects that will have to be taken into consideration when new facilities are being erected – segregation, hygiene and traceability.

“People will have to be segregated when they are preparing the food into different zones,” he said. “You can’t have low-care workers mixing with medium-care workers, or medium-care mixing with high care and vice versa. If you look at your food service or aged care facilities at the moment, they get supplies coming in the back loading bay. Kitchen hands are there, but they have to be diligent because COVID lives on cardboard for three days. Potentially they’ll take the food off the supplier, and then take it out and potentially start contaminating people and themselves.

“Then the goods go to the chef who then puts it on the Bain Marie, and then another person serves it and the contamination continues. In aged care, for example, they will have to start looking at zoning because people that are coming from outside the service need to be segregated. In order to get into the food service areas they will have to go through a barrier.”

Blythman said this is a glimpse into the future and that potentially there will be investment needed in the food service arena to make sure all measures are in place to protect everybody in the food chain.

“You can talk to any food manufacturer and they understand high-level segregation, high care, low care, and how to do that,” he said. “It is mandated in all their businesses. It needs to flow down into other aspects of the food sector. We are seeing it in aged care, and soon it will be in hospitals, too.”

Tate believes when building aged care facilities, or other buildings where food service is necessary, architects will have to look at putting areas where changeovers can happen, so the chances of contamination can be reduced. While there is a lot of care in such industries at the moment, having purpose built zones that limit such issues, might soon become the norm.

“Look at the cruise industry at the moment. It has completely changed. When they said they were segregating into their cabins the cabin crew were wandering around everywhere. They weren’t segregated. They went to the kitchen to get the food; they went to the linen cupboard and back to the cabin. That is how people got contaminated,” he said. “The food aspect of the aged care facility is the same. They are very vulnerable. There is a storage freezer project that we did in the Illawarra, which is automated and they use robots. The technology they use there is what they could use in a cruise liner nine floors high. They could supply food and other things in the cabins without touching human beings. A lot of the technology in the food manufacturing industry can be used in other industries like the food service industry.”

He also cites another industry where hygiene was an issue, and has since been addressed.

“Ready meals is an example that adapted,” he said. “They followed the strict standards of the pharmaceutical industry. There was a time where ready meals where having outbreaks that were killing people. Then, it was all about segregated areas during the production process so there was no cross contamination. It was about hygiene levels.”

Traceability is the final piece in the puzzle, according to Tate. The food industry has been doing traceability with barcodes for some time. He talks about the UK, where traceability was introduced due to a mad cow disease outbreak in the early 1980s. They had to trace back so they could ensure the beef wasn’t contaminated.

“Some meat would come in, they’d scan the barcode, and knew exactly where the meat came from,” said Tate. “Which farm, which paddock, which cow. It was manual, but we did it. We would do it by looking at the use-by dates, and then there was a special code – a different code would give you a different day.”

To Blythman, another aspect that needs to be considered for the food service industry is distribution, mainly due to the nature of how food is doled out in various facilities.

“If a staff member in a hospital has COVID, that nurse or doctor is usually in one area of the hospital, whereas the food distribution is designed to be everywhere from a central point, which means there is instant spreading,” he said. “You have to try and make the food distribution area captive and have gating to stop the spread. When staff distribute food and they are going out and coming back they go through a sanitisation process. Even the trollies have to be sanitised so you are minimising the risks throughout the building.

“What we are seeing in the future is back to smaller kitchens. Each floor might have its own kitchen so they can isolate at that point. There might be a gate mechanism there, and a gate mechanism at the main distribution kitchen.”
Tate said Total Construction is starting to look at three different zones when it comes to food in the aged care sector. The critical zone is where the food gets distributed.

“Zone A is your critical zone for preparation,” he said. “With Zone B you should be gowned up and masked and have filtered air because you are dealing with people. Zone C means I can walk outside and pick up packaging. And when I come into the facility it is a different zone and I have to wash my hands.”

With the hygiene aspect, Tate gives practical advice when it comes to keeping not just COVID-19 at bay but any potential virus or bacteria. There is no point in taking half measures, he said.

“When you do wash your hands they need to be washed at a tepid temperature of 39˚C. Most people do it half properly, then they touch a door handle and away they go,” he said. “That is how contamination spreads. You should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or more, to make sure that it is all lathered with soap, because that is breaking down the molecules. Then you dry them with a paper towel, use the towel to open doors, and then dispose of the towel in a bin with a popup lid.

“And that is how the food industry is run to meet BRC standards and to reach Woolworths’ standard. Because the brand damage to a company if somebody gets food poisoning can be non-recoverable.”

“A lot of this stuff is about getting the design, processes and procedure right,” said Blythman. “A lot can be improved by changing processes, simply changing the way you do things, as opposed to physical segregation within a facility, which can be an expensive exercise when building. Retrofit works may also be required. One thing is for sure, the food service arena will need to ensure food safety practices improve to reduce the risk of virus transmission to their patrons, and it is going to be a long road of change ahead for a lot of companies in the new COVID world.”

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