Much of the fresh produce sold in UAE supermarkets are imported Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: Do you think twice before you pick up your groceries at the supermarket these days? Do you find yourself wondering if it’s okay to buy, say, apples or strawberries from a COVID-19 hotzone?

Well, the good news is that such fears, while not uncommon, are unfounded.

As Gulf News posed the questions to the authorities, supermarkets and suppliers, it emerged that stringent protocols are in place to ensure the safety of the products right from where the imports are sourced, through the supply and distribution chain to the final point of sale in the UAE.

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Al Maya Supermarket at Al Marooj, Dubai Image Credit: Atiq Ur Rahman, Gulf News

Speaking to Gulf News, Dr Essam Al Hashmi, Head of Food Trade Control Section in the Food Safety Department at Dubai Municipality, said, “With regards to food imports, we are implementing all necessary safety procedures. Samples of food coming from everywhere are in any case tested for safety by our inspectors. We are doing all that is required from our side to ensure that the products are safe.”

It’s a safe conclusion

Supermarket chains in the UAE explain why it is safe to arrive at such a conclusion.

Kamal Vachani, group director of the Al Maya Group, which has 50 supermarkets in the country, said, “Most of our suppliers, with whom we have a long-standing relationship, are established names who follow very strict safety standards at the source. In the current climate, stepped up quality import checks have been implemented everywhere.”

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Kamal Vachani Image Credit: Gulf News

He said, “From our end too, we have defined hygiene protocols at every stage of the supply chain to make sure the products are handled with utmost safety, whether it is at our cold storage facilities at Al Aweer or when they are transported to our different stores, unpacked and stacked on the shelves.”

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Fruits being washed at the Al Maya Supermarket Image Credit: Atiq Ur Rahman/Gulf News

Smitha Vijay, QHSE Operations Manager at Choithrams, said the process is elaborate.

She said, “In response to the pandemic, we are deploying stringent HSE standards within the Choithrams ecosystem of suppliers, stores and customer-facing touch points.”

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Smitha VIjay Image Credit: Gulf News

The topped up protocol

Broadly, the standards include:

o Compliance with local authority directions and ensuring of enhanced personal hygiene measures, adequate PPEs (personal protective equipment) for staff and maintenance of social distancing throughout import handling procedures.

o Frequent checks to ensure perishables are safe and fresh.

o Thorough sanitisation of containers with surface sanitisers; frequent use of sanitisers by drivers.

o Training of import handling operations team on proper handwashing and stock handling procedures.

o More engaged dialogues with vendors for ensuring safe transportation of perishables.

o Enhanced QA (quality assurance) checks on imported goods to reconfirm their compliance with safety standards

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Choithrams, DIFC Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Vijay said, “In view of the current situation, we are topping up protocols to ensure every step in the daily organisation of the stores and our offices are conducted in a safe environment. We have installed additional hand sanitisers in common areas of office and retail space, specially checkout zones; in all warehouses, production divisions and staff accommodations; also, virucidal surface sanitisers available and our housekeeping team follows an updated sanitisation programme.”

There’s also the time factor

“Let’s take apples imported from the US for example,” said Vachani. “If shipped by sea, they take at least 35 days to reach us; if they come by air, they take around 14-15 hours. Add to this the clearance time of three-four hours at the ports, plus the couple of hours it takes to be distributed to the stores. Besides safety controls at the source and throughout the logistics network, the sheer time taken for the products to reach us is sufficient to allay fears of even a remote possibility of contamination.”

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Hygiene protocols are in place at every stage of the supply chain, say retailers Image Credit: Ati Ur Rahman/ Gulf News

Vijay added, “We are continuously monitoring the situation, assessing risks and responding in line with the directives of relevant authorities on food safety. The Ministry of Health along with health authorities have informed us that there is no scientific evidence that the virus can survive on items or packages of imported goods.”

Can coronavirus travel on packages?

So what are the chances of the deadly coronavirus travelling on the packages from the countries they are imported from?

The UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention, which has addressed this issue in its awareness drives, has asked precisely this question: Can the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) be transmitted through imported goods?

Are the cartons in which fruits and vegetables shipped safe? Image Credit: Gulf News

The answer, according to the ministry, is that there is no scientific evidence that the virus can survive on such items or packages, so the probability of catching the virus from them is low.

Most manufacturers and suppliers have also stepped up hygiene and safety standards after the outbreak of coronavirus.

Rainer Mueller, Nestlé’s communication and marketing services director (MENA), said, “Millions of families -- and their pets -- rely on us to continue to provide them with food and beverage products. In the UAE, we are stepping up our support for the country and are working tirelessly to keep our employees, business partners and communities healthy and safe during the coronavirus outbreak.

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Rainer Mueller Image Credit: Supplied

He said, “In addition to our normal strict hygiene standards, we have put in place enhanced safety measures in our factories, offices and distribution centres. We also ensure highest levels of hygiene and food safety across our value chain. We work together with our supply chain, distribution and retail partners to implement appropriate infection control measures and ensure continued production and delivery of our products.”

What the US-based FDA says

According to the US-based Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “There is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

It said, “Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.”

To a frequently asked question on the recall of food products produced in a facility during the time that a worker is potentially shedding the virus while working, the FDA said, “We do not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or be withdrawn from the market because of COVID-19, as there is currently no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging.

“Additionally, facilities are required to control any risks that might be associated with workers who are ill regardless of the type of virus or bacteria. For example, facilities are required to maintain clean and sanitised facilities and food contact surfaces.”