Keeping the hospital cafeteria COVID-safe

By Andrew Thomson, Think ST Solutions*
Monday, 19 October, 2020

Keeping the hospital cafeteria COVID-safe

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia earlier this year, no-one imagined how widespread the outbreak would become or the impact it would have on lives, the economy and how businesses operate.

With hospitals being at the forefront of fighting COVID-19, pressure has mounted on hospital food operations to find new ways of feeding hungry employees (and visitors).

Hospital cafeterias have had to adjust their work practices and menus. Having a properly developed and executed plan, sharing information and knowledge, backed up with on-the-job training with food-handling employees is essential. Reviewing the plan periodically will be required.

Maintaining high standards of food safety practices combined with cleaning and sanitising of equipment and surfaces are important considerations for cafeterias. Advice is recommended to all food businesses by the national food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand.


High standards of food safety start with good handwashing and personal hygiene — a key requirement of Food Safety Standard 3.2.2. and contained within the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. With rapid and repeated public health messaging of the importance of washing hands combined with mandatory handwashing training, everyone who handles food should have a raised awareness. Washing hands in a designated sink or basin with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses and is a legal requirement for all food business owners to follow.

Contamination prevention

Employees that handle food have an obligation to protect food, surfaces and equipment from contamination and are required to inform their supervisor if they are unwell and displaying symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, sore throat, jaundice or respiratory illness.

Any employee displaying symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, coughing, sore throat, fatigue, shortness of breath) must not enter the workplace. Food handlers should consult with their doctor and only return to work once they have received a clearance.

It is important to strictly adhere to fundamental food safety practices such as correct use of food-handler gloves (changing them after every task) and the use of tongs and utensils rather than direct bare-hand-to-food contact. Correct storage practices and hygienic handling are necessary. Cooking potentially hazardous food to the required temperature of 75°C by measuring the core of food using a clean and sanitised probe thermometer should be done routinely. Hot holding of food in bain-maries must be over 60°C to prevent pathogen growth.

Menu considerations

Menu adjustments include removing self-service of salads and soup — which increases the risk of infection — instead offering these food items as ‘grab-and-go’ options in tightly sealed biodegradable packaging. The food packaging should be fit for purpose to maintain hot or cold temperatures and maintain the integrity of the quality of food.

Specific ingredient labelling of these foods will address any customer concerns with food allergens. Having a clear, printed message on the food packaging advising customers to consume the food product immediately after purchase is a good idea.

Well-stocked vending machines for dispensing ‘grab-and-go’ food such as fruit salad have become popular in hospitals. Customers should discard uneaten food products two hours after purchase.

Building customer confidence

Gaining customer confidence is an important factor. When customers enter the cafeteria, they want to observe clear signage and directions, with hand-sanitiser stations strategically placed and being used. Cafeteria visitors want to see that social distancing is being observed and that employees are cleaning frequently touched areas such as benchtops, counters, door handles and fridges. Other frequently touched surfaces include cutlery holders, trays, counters, tables and chairs, food contact surfaces, customer display areas, vending machines, handrails, tap handles, switches, and EFTPOS keypads and cash registers.

SARS CoV-2 can survive on surfaces for many hours but is readily inactivated by cleaning and disinfection.

Frontline leaders need to provide clearly set out procedures and ensure that employees with cleaning duties have the appropriate level of training and the correct equipment. Employees need to know what needs cleaning when, and should be supervised to ensure that cleaning is carried out to the highest standard.

Routine cleaning should be done throughout the day and every time a food preparation process is completed (clean as you go), as well as at the end of the day.

Care should be taken when wiping tables and work surfaces. A dirty cloth or one that is used from one surface to the next repeatedly can spread bacteria and viruses across surfaces. For this reason it’s important to start with a clean cloth and use a detergent and sanitiser.

Keeping these few tips in mind will help mitigate the chances of infection with COVID-19.

Andrew Thomson is the company director for Think ST Solutions, a food consultancy offering practical solutions to both management and staff in hospitals, aged-care facilities, restaurants, hotels and the food industry.

Image credit: ©

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