Covid-19: Safety Level of Hotel Foods

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No other event seems to have arrested the attention of the electronic, print and social media so much as the worldwide spread of Covid-19. Day in and day out, statistical data on the incidence of the epidemic are being discussed in news channels ever since the disease reared its ugly head in early February in China. Proactive steps by government and non-government agencies in India to restrain the spread of the virus have dominated news bulletins in all TV channels in the last few weeks.
Thanks to the plethora of initiatives attempted by the governments at the Centre and the States, there is increasing awareness among India’s citizenry about the likely spread of Covid-19 and the caution to be exercised while fighting the epidemic. Several FAQs have been answered by healthcare experts in various media channels. There is, however, one area where clarity seems to be still wanting. How safe are restaurant foods? Can these foods act as vectors of Covid-19? To answer these queries, we may take recourse to a couple of research findings, one somewhat disconcerting and the other profoundly reassuring. These findings have not perhaps received the level of attention they deserve.
Research teams in USA, including one from the Harvard Medical School, have found that Coronavirus can remain alive on surfaces of metals, plastic, wood, ceramic, glass, etc., for periods ranging from a few hours to as long as a few days though on porous substrates like paper, fabric, etc., its life is significantly shorter. This finding is rather unsettling because these are surfaces of objects people routinely come in contact within public places. (Higher temperature and lower humidity are reported to reduce the life of the virus on these surfaces, which is perhaps why the spread of the endemic is perceptibly sluggish in India). The reassuring finding reported by the researchers is that Coronavirus needs a living cell, animal or human, to thrive in and proliferate. It may be logically claimed, therefore, that the virus cannot be passed on to people through food.
The above claim regarding safety of foods, however, needs to be viewed with circumspection. As far as cooked foods are concerned, safety is irrefutable since the virus cannot survive the high temperatures at which they are processed. Moreover, the organism cannot thrive and multiply on food items as they don’t contain living cells. On the face of it, the hotel food would thus appear safe. But, lo and behold, what about cooked food polluted by the sneeze or cough of a restaurant staffer? And what about uncooked foods like salads and fruits served in the hotel? Since the virus can remain active for several hours or even days on surfaces of non-living things, as indeed research studies discussed above have shown, one can claim that hotel foods polluted by the staff have the potential to infect humans. However, the situation is entirely preventable if the hotel staff is made to wear masks and hand gloves such that a sneeze or a cough would not contaminate the food. The hotel management and health authorities should strictly enforce the appropriate hygiene protocol.
To build public confidence, hotels could throw open the pantry to the guests who can convince themselves that the food served is safe for them. It will be even desirable to install CCTV facility in the restaurant to enable the customers to have a glimpse of the manner in which the kitchen workers are conducting themselves. Such measures will go a long way in sensitizing the staff and thereby preventing the spread of the pandemic which is entering the crucial third week in India.

(Krishnan Iyer)

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