COVID-19 and use of disinfectants and sanitizers in food premises

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Friday, April 3, 2020
Tina Chen

This blog is based on the NCCEH guidance document Disinfectants and Sanitizers for Use on Food Contact Surfaces to reflect recent developments due to COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 illnesses. Current evidence shows that the primary modes of transmission are via respiratory droplets when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, and close contact with an infected individual. Respiratory droplets may also contaminate surfaces (fomites) such as door handles, light switches, chairs, or faucets. Evidence on whether airborne and fecal transmission are potential pathways is still evolving. Some evidence of disease transmission by asymptomatic individuals is also emerging. Research evidence to date has shown that the virus can remain stable on surfaces ranging from several hours to several days, depending on the material of the surface.

SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces

Fomites include both hard non-porous surfaces and soft porous surfaces. Hard surfaces, such as door handles, chairs, light switches, and countertops, become contaminated through contact with soiled hands or contact with respiratory droplets expelled by ill individuals. While knowledge about this emerging pathogen is continuously evolving, the most recent research evidence demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 is able to survive on copper for up to four hours, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. The viability of the virus to remain on a variety of surfaces supports the importance of frequent cleaning and disinfection, proper etiquette such as sneezing and coughing into elbows, and robust hand hygiene practices among other non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent disease transmission.

There is currently no evidence to show that viral transmission is possible by eating contaminated food. However, as any fomite (such as food packaging) may potentially become contaminated, it is prudent to practice proper hand hygiene after handling groceries and food delivery items. Staff in food premises should practice appropriate hand hygiene with soap and water for 20-30 seconds, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. However, staff directly involved in food preparation should only use soap and water.

Cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants

Food contact surfaces are defined as any equipment or utensil that comes into contact with food products, or with other surfaces that comes into contact with food products. Environmental surfaces refer to all other non-food contact surfaces in a food production operation. As the toxicological risks differ between products used on food contact versus on environmental surfaces, the testing standards and processes used in regulating and approving products also differ. 

The types of products used in cleaning and sanitation programs in food premises can be distinguished by their intended use and ability to kill microorganisms:

Cleaners are detergents or abrasive cleaners that physically or chemically remove dirt, dust, organic materials, and microorganisms. As debris such as dirt or organic materials may reduce the effectiveness of disinfectants, cleaners are important in the cleaning and sanitation program of food production facilities.

Sanitizers reduce, but not necessarily eliminate microorganisms on surfaces. In food production facilitiesspecial food contact sanitizers with disinfectant claims are used on food contact surfaces. These products must reduce microbial contamination by 99.999% or 5 log in 30 seconds. Some products may need to be rinsed off with potable water; manufacturer’s instructions must be followed and verified to be safe on food contact surfaces as needed.

Non-food contact sanitizers used on environmental (non-food contact) surfaces must reduce microbial contamination by at least 99.9% or 3 log within 5 minutes at room temperature.

Disinfectant products include bactericides, fungicides, virucides, mycobactericides, tuberculocides, sporicides, and sterilants. These products have a greater ability to eliminate microorganisms and are categorized into low, intermediate, and high depending on their intended use and efficacy against different types of microorganisms. To disinfect environmental surfaces potentially contaminated with SARS-CoV-2, the disinfectant product must be approved for such use in food premises. The manufacturer instructions, including concentrations and contact time, must also be followed to ensure its effectiveness.

Cleaning and sanitation program in food premises

In Canada, a cleaning and sanitation program in food premises includes identifying areas, equipment, utensils, and surfaces that require cleaning and sanitizing/disinfecting, the frequency and procedures of cleaning and sanitizing/disinfecting, and the types of products used for cleaning and sanitizing/disinfecting. Food premise operators should review their existing cleaning and sanitation programs to identify areas where increased frequency of sanitizing and disinfection is warranted, and whether the disinfectants used have been approved for use against SARS-CoV-2. The BC Centre for Disease Control recommends regularly cleaning and sanitizing all food contact surfaces such as food prep tables, kitchens, and packaging areas. Customer service areas exposed to the public should also be cleaned and disinfected, and non-food contact high-touch surfaces such as hand-held POS devices, menus, chairs, bathrooms, and door knobs should be disinfected with an approved disinfectant product.

Household bleach is considered a disinfectant if used at 1000 to 5000 ppm solution with 10 minute contact time. As SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus, it can be inactivated with a 500-1000 ppm bleach solution, while pathogens such as norovirus may require 5000 ppm bleach solution to be inactivated. This online chlorine calculator is useful to calculate the appropriate amount of bleach to add to a certain amount of water to achieve desired concentration solution. Never mix disinfectant products as this may result in toxic by-products that may be dangerous to the user. When bleach is mixed with ammonia (found in some glass and window cleaners, interior and exterior paints, and urine), chloramine gases are produced. Symptoms of chloramine gas exposure include coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and nausea. Mixing bleach with acids (found in vinegar, some toilet bowl cleaners, drain cleaners, and dishwasher detergents) produces chlorine gas. Chlorine gas is an irritant even at low levels and causes coughing, breathing problems, burning and watery eyes, and a runny nose. When chlorine gas is combined with water, hydrochloric acid is produced, which causes burns to the skin, eyes, nose, throat, mouth, and lungs.

Approved sanitizers and disinfectants used against SARS-CoV-2

Health Canada uses stringent safety, efficacy, quality, and labelling regulations and standards to approve disinfectant products for sale in Canada. Sanitizers without disinfectant claims are not regulated through the same channels. Approved disinfectant products must have a Drug Identification Number (DIN). In response to COVID-19, Health Canada is implementing interim measures to address potential disinfectant product shortages and to ensure Canadians can access disinfectant products that can be used against SARS-CoV-2:

  • Facilitate expedited access to disinfectants through special approval for sale of products that may not be fully compliant with labelling requirements, or that are not authorized for sale in Canada but are authorized or registered in other jurisdictions with similar regulatory frameworks and quality assurances as Canada. The list of disinfectant products approved under the interim measures can be found on the Health Canada website.
  • Provide a regularly-updated list of hand sanitizer and disinfectant products approved against SARS-CoV-2. Practitioners and consumers are advised to check products using this list to ensure that they are approved for use against this emerging pathogen.

Additional resources

NCCEH resources

General COVID-19 information

Cleaning and disinfection

Food Safety and COVID-19

Approved hard-surface disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2