Coronavirus and Caterers

March 13, 2020
Cedric Seguela

Coronavirus and Caterers

Firstly I want to let you know that I am an ex-caterer and food safety specialist and not a virologist so I would suggest that after reading this post you check with the latest information posted by the following bodies:

Public Health England –  


World Health Organisation – 

I’ve recently been doing some food safety research and not all viruses are harmful in fact there is a group of bacteria that can help prevent foodborne illness by Lysing (killing) individual pathogenic bacteria.

These were discovered long before antibiotics came on the scene by Frederick W.Twortin Great Britain (1915) and Félix d’Hérelle in France (1917).

These viruses are called “Bacteriophages” and each bacteriophage or “Phage” has its own preferred victim and will target certain bacteria or their close relatives.

Viruses are not usually classed as “Living” and they can’t reproduce themselves by multiplying as with most simple protozoa (single-celled creatures of the animal kingdom).

Viruses (including Bacteriophages) are very small objects that consist of proteins that encapsulate DNA or RNA genomes. These can be very simple (4 genes) to more complicated with numerous genes but are not recognised as being alive.

Typically the Phage (Type T4) will have a head which is usually a capsid shape with a tail and then typically 6 fibre legs with which it attaches to the bacterial cell.

The Phage seeks out the bacteria and injects its Nuclear material into the bacterial. 

Phages can then replicate their selves in the bacterial cell in 2 ways by Lytic or Lysogenic cycles. 

In the Lytic cycle, the virus multiplies rapidly and then Lyses or kills the cell releasing many more copies of itself. 

With the Lysogenic cycle, the nuclear material binds with the nuclear material of the bacteria and this then continues with binary fission for the bacteria to reproduce. The bacteria eventually die releasing the Phages. This way takes longer but produces more viruses.

The result of all this is the destruction of the actual bacteria. These Phages don’t directly attack our body cells and can be used to successfully prevent harmful bacteria from affecting the food.

Depending on where in the world you are these phages are used in the food procession industry and are used in items such as sausage meat cheese etc, which in turn will make the food we eat safer from pathogenic bacterial contamination as the individual bacteria can be totally destroyed.

This is useful information but because of the recently confirmed (World Health Organisation) of a pandemic from the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus, this is going to affect the way most people in the food industry work.

In the UK the government have started inputting serious measures to ensure that we as a nation can survive this pandemic including statutory sick pay from day one or workers who self isolate.

There has also been the recent announcement that schools are probably going to close for at least 2 months and this also puts pressures on people who will then have to stay at home to look after them if they can’t get retired relatives to look after them.

The UK based NCASS is already announcing that there will be cuts as event catering is going to be one of the early casualties, with events being cancelled on a wide scale.

So what can we do to protect ourselves and our customers from COVID-19?

Coronavirus is so-called because of it’s resemblance to a crown

Coronaviruses have been long known about and cause respiratory infections such as the zoonotic MERS virus (transmitted from dromedary camels to humans) and zoonotic SARS virus (transmitted from cats to humans) in recent years. It is also responsible for common colds and flu and in severe cases pneumonia. 

COVID-19 is the most recent version of coronavirus and is thought to have been first identified at the end of 2019 in Wuhan in China.

So what does COVID-19 do?

COVID -19 produces a flu-like infection, which many people will suffer but eventually recover. Having said that for those in vulnerable groups (young children, elderly, those with the weakened immune system, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease, heart conditions etc) it can also be more serious and in some cases may lead to death in patients whose health is compromised. The main symptoms are a dry cough, high temperature and in more severe cases pneumonia and death. 

The virus is a lung infection and its main entry point to the body is the face including the mouth, nose and eyes. Healthy skin is not normally a direct cause of infection but hands can quickly become contaminated therefore people need to be being careful and wash their hands more frequently and not to touch their face area without first washing their hands.

Wash your hands


So the main preventive measure we can all take is effective hand washing with soap clean running *hand-hot water) and avoid recontaminating our hands by turning off the tap with a towel after drying the hands and not touching the waste bins. Other things may or may not work as well i.e. alcohol gel (min 60% alcohol as per WHO guidelines) but hand washing is the most effective method.

The use of face masks will help people who are coughing from spreading their sputum but it is no defence against the virus itself and the eyes are not generally covered so any sputum/air bound particles can still infect us.

The use of face masks is not generally well understood and people get a false sense of security as they think it will make them immune.

The other thing about face masks is that you can contaminate your face if you don’t wash your hands before putting on the mask and again after putting the mask on and a similar regime for when you take them off. 

People often make the mistake of touching the face mask while they are wearing it again this can further contaminate the hands.

Even some of the better quality face masks including carbon/charcoal filters aren’t always fitted to the wearers face correctly, which is an essential part of any biological separation or hazmat type of suit.

If anyone in your family becomes infected then they and you should self-isolate and in the case of a family member, barrier nursing techniques will help. This would include such things as separate clean hand or paper towels to prevent the spread of the virus. The infection is usually spread from an infected person either by direct contact or by the ingestion of bodily fluids such as sputum.

The virus will also survive on soft furnishing and hard surfaces such as stainless steel.

So for example when out shopping try and refrain from touching door and fridge handles and if you do then wash and disinfect them. You should also try to limit touching your face while out and about and put your deliveries and shopping away and then wash your hands properly before doing anything else.

There seem to be different theories about how long the virus will survive on a surface but ideally, you should allow at least 24 hours before directly handling these again.

There is also a problem with driving to and from a supermarket or cash and carry in that your vehicle will become contaminated anywhere you have directly touched I.e keys, steering wheel, door handles etc. so these will either need to be disinfected directly after or left for long enough for the virus to die out.

It would be prudent to provide suitable handwashing facilities for customers to use before they eat and limit what access they have for things like tongs or unwrapped foods for example. You may have to change your menu to items that don’t require people to touch any food handling items. For example, the virus is susceptible to heat so any cooked items that aren’t touched and clean cutlery and crockery should be fine but any Ready to eat foods that are directly handled could potentially easily be contaminated for example – pork pies, sandwiches, salad/buffet items etc.

Your front of house staff will need to be told to wash their hands after handling dirty plates or before and after serving food to customers.

Even the UK health minister has gone down with COVID-19 and as a precaution is self-isolating so keep calm and don’t panic but also don’t underestimate the importance of doing things properly.

One last thing is that any contact surface needs frequent cleaning and in particular any money you handle will be a potential source of infection including coins and paper notes and plastic notes.

Plastic notes and coins can be washed in soapy water (the soap helps to break the virus down) and disinfected. With paper notes ideally quarantine them ASAP and don’t use money that hasn’t been treated to give back to your customers.

Steve Pepper

Food Safety Trainer and Consultant.


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