There is no current evidence to show that Covid-19 has spread through food or food packaging
A certificate hanging on a wall will catch the attention of those who enter this restaurant. The doctor's certification says, "This restaurant successfully underwent a Covid-19 precaution and prevention training." Next to it, there is a foot operated hand sanitiser.
The restaurant, called 138 East, is located in Gulshan – an upscale area of Dhaka – and is one of the 700 eateries in the capital that is running food delivery service during the pandemic.
At the eatery, the staff were in face masks and gloves and the tables were set up maintaining social distancing. However, with low customer turnout, the restaurant was banking on delivery services.
With novel coronavirus precautions still in place, people are naturally cautious about whether it is safe to get food delivered to their homes.
The expert verdict is that ordering in is just like a two-way street where both food handlers and customers need to maintain safety precautions. The good news is that contracting a Covid-19 infection through food is marginally low.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said coronaviruses cannot multiply in food as the pathogen needs a live animal or human host to multiply and survive.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment reports that the virus couls also spread through "smear" infection, that is, a healthy person could pick up a viral load by touching a recently contaminated surface, say a bottle of sauce, a touch-screen ATM, or a door handle and then transmit that virus to their eyes and nose where it could cause a infection. Such objects carrying infectious agents are known as "fomites."
The US Department of Homeland Security lists both aerosole and fomite transmission as "plausible."
Washing one's hands before touching the face reduces this likelihood, as coronovirus cannot be absorbed through the skin.
The US CDC reports that there is no current known cases of fecal-oral transmission of Covid-19. In this case, a viral load in the stool of a carrier would make its way in the mouth of a healthy person. Possible cases would be a person preparing food without observing proper hygiene, or the exposure of food crops to human fecal matters in the field during growth or harvest.
Another crucial question that might bother a consumer is the length of time the virus remains on contaminated surfaces.
An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 can be detected in aerosoles (airborne droplets smaller than five micrometers) for up to three hours, on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on stainless steel or plastic for up to three days.
This means if a delivery person or package handler infected with the virus sneezes or coughs on a package, the virus can stay on those packages for up to a day. Plastic take-out containers or stainless steel works surfaces can hold the virus for three days.
There are two ways the consumer can minimize the risk: Transfer the food and other goods--whether delivered to the door or bought at the store--to clean containers when it makes sense to, and wash hands thoroughly.
The data on how long the virus remains active on food is limited. The general information is that viral loads remain stable on non-porus surfaces like metal and plastic, and break down faster on organic surfaces like cardboard.
According to multiple health and safety organisation sources, there is no current evidence to show that Covid-19 has spread through food or food packaging. There is strong evidence that food is not a medium of infection of the virus.
Reheating the food before consumption also would reduce the risk of infection possibly picked up by food handling by a sick person.
The kitchen of 138 East is on the ground floor of the two-storied building. The chef and his three assistants were in virus safety gear.
"We wash our hands with soap before and after the shifts. Inside the kitchen, we try to maintain social distancing," said Sony Rozario, the chef of the restaurant.
About the certificate at the entrance, Managing Director of the restaurant Ashfaq Rahman Asif said their staff participated in a virus prevention training under a private arrangement.
Ashfaq said four companies – Pathao, Foodpanda, Shohoz, and HungryNaki – have contracts with them to deliver food to customers. He said they prepare and package the foods by maintaining health safety plus provide hand gloves and written unboxing instructions in the takeaway packages.
The instructions of 138 East are that gloves be worn while unpacking, the foods be reheated in the microwave oven and that the gloves and food boxes be properly disposed of. After packaging food in a restaurant, the delivery companies collect and deliver it to the customers.
Dr Jahidur Rahman, a virologist and assistant professor of Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and Hospital, said, "Though the virus does not spread by food, the concern is the packaging."
The virologist recommended throwing away the food boxes carefully and not refrigerating the food in delivery boxes.
What about less upscale areas of Dhaka
However, other less affluent areas in the capital are not as concerned as the Gulshan eatery is.
For instance, though Nawabi Voj Mohammadpur had its waiters in virus safety gear Thursday, the baker in the kitchen was kneading dough without any protective measures.
Thai Garden 2, a Thai-Chinese restaurant and party centre in Dhaka's Kachukhet area, also had its kitchen staff without virus protective measures.
However, both eateries claimed they maintain the highest safety while delivering food to customers at home.
Nawabi Voj delivers food packages using Pataho, Shohoz and Foodpanda services. The restaurant also has its own home delivery arrangement within a two-kilometer radius. Thai Garden 2 is connected to Pathao operated food delivery network.
Lalmatia dweller Abdullah Hasan said he was satisfied with the food delivery hygiene management.
"I ordered pizza from Pizza Hut during the lockdown. The delivery boy turned up with protective gear on and I have had no bad experience over home delivery so far," he added.
Meanwhile, Dhaka's Green Road area dweller Shihab Uddin Khan said although he used to order food using mobile apps, the pandemic has left him confused as to whether it is safe to order in.
Delivery companies turning virus gloom into boom
As more and more people opted for home delivery of food and grocery items during the virus-led countrywide shutdown, delivery service providers have said they witnessed a 30% business boom following the pandemic.
Various companies said that they gave strict hygiene instructions to delivery men and the companies themselves provide the riders with virus safety gear.
Shahabuddin Shaon, recruitment executive of Foodpanda's Lalmatia hub, said his branch delivers food, medicine and grocery items in the Mohammadpur, Dhanmondi and Panthapath area.
He said, "Before the pandemic, the hub used to handle 6,000-6,500 orders per day which later jumped to 7,500."
"Before the pandemic, 450-500 delivery men used to work at this hub everyday. But we had to raise the number to 700 as more and more orders are pouring in," he added.
Foodpanda currently has 35,000 delivery men registered across the country.
Foodpanda Bangladesh CEO Ambareen Reza said, "We scaled rapidly across 25 cities before the pandemic. We have been witnessing exponential growth in business in the last six months. Our business and footprint have grown over 300 percent in the last 12 months and we expect this to continue."
Meanwhile, Director of Shohoz Food Farzana Sharmeen said food delivery has been a lifeline since full-scale ride sharing is off. She said many of their riders were now turning into deliverymen.
Sharmeen said Shohoz Food is currently getting around 6,000 orders per day. However, it hopes the orders reach 10,000-12,000 per day by September," she added.
Followed by the global virus outbreak, Foodpanda came up with a contactless delivery idea, adding a new option to its Foodpanda app. If a customer prefers contactless delivery, the rider will place the ordered product right next to the door of the customer and stand three feet away from the door.
Then the customer will be informed that the delivery has arrived, while the payment will take place online.
Syed Ahsan, a Foodpanda delivery man in Gulshan said the company has provided them with face masks, gloves and hand sanitiser. Additionally, they have to undergo temperature checks, daily, before starting their shift.