KANSAS CITY - First, the basics.

To get ready for flu season, it’s important to encourage associates to get a seasonal flu vaccine as soon as possible, said Paula Herald, Technical Consultant for Charlotte, North Carolina-based Steritech.

After that, companies need to continue to place a strong emphasis on frequent handwashing, social distancing, staying home when symptomatic and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces. Businesses should also remind employees that coming to work sick with the flu may infect their fellow employees and possibly customers when they sneeze or cough. 

“Shoppers don’t want to see employees in the deli or meat department or anywhere handle their foods while coughing, sneezing or otherwise acting sick,” Herald said. 

The symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, Herald said, so it’s important to stay vigilant. 

“It’s so important this year for people to get a flu vaccine to prevent the possibility of getting both COVID-19 and flu at the same time – a ‘twindemic.’” 

Companies need to encourage employees to keep well by getting good nutrition, lots of rest and exercising., which may help boost their immune system and prevent or lessen the severity of illnesses, Herald said. Also, having signs to promote produce washing before eating demonstrates that retailers care about customers and encourage good food safety practices. 

Pandemic impact

COVID-19 and has exposed the urgent need for a higher level of expert sanitation across the food processing industry, said Jake Watts, vice president of food safety for PSSI.

That goes for the flu as well as the coronavirus.

To protect the quality of products and, more importantly, the health and wellbeing of employees and the integrity of customers’ brands, PSSI’s documented 8-Steps of Sanitation and microbial hazard mitigation processes is proven to effectively work across all surfaces, Watts said. 

That includes the integration of exclusive products like PSSI’s Packers Chemical Innovations PURE Hard Surface sanitizer and Microbarrier Elite™ to build a scientifically validated program proven to protect surfaces.  

“Our holistic approach was validated through a challenge study conducted in a certified, third-party testing lab,” Watts said. “The goal of the study was to provide verification that PSSI’s sanitation and microbial hazard mitigation measures are effectively removing SARS-CoV-2 from non-production areas within a food facility.”

The company’s testing showed SARS-CoV-2 was not found on high-touch-point surfaces in common areas of the food facility, proving PSSI’s approach was effective. 

In addition, PSSI’s seal of Validated PSSI Protection is designed to give frontline employees the confidence in knowing they are protected, Watts said.   

“All viruses have the potential to live on hard surfaces and can be treated the same with proper sanitation and mitigation efforts,” he said.

Beyond implementing it 8 Steps of Sanitation Process, PSSI has created additional safety protocols in communal areas, such as decontaminating high-touch surfaces, in an effort to keep its own employees safe — the same safeguards provided its customers.  

“We have taken additional steps like ensuring that hand sanitizer is available at all entrances, exits, and transition points within facilities in addition to continuing to implement more stringent policies, such as requiring facial coverings and social distancing in the workplace,” Watts said. 

Getting a head start

It’s hard to find any silver linings during the pandemic, but Herald pointed out that, due to COVID-19 preventative measures, supermarkets are already ahead of the curve for flu-prevention practices.  

Grocery stores — and perimeter instore departments in particular — should limit any self-service options and have items pre-packaged or proportioned to prevent any opportunity for contact with shared utensils, Herald said. Things like toppings should be placed in dispensers to keep hands out of the food.  

It’s also in a supermarket’s best interest to invest the time and money to ensure employees are cross-trained, regardless of their normal interaction with fresh departments, so that they’re able to cover in case of absenteeism, Herald said.

“There could be increased management costs associated with training new employees, so it’s important to factor that in,” she said. “New employees are more likely to create food safety risks as well.” 

Sick customers and employees can transmit the flu when common touchpoints are contaminated and touched by others. It’s important, Herald said, to have procedures in place, train employees on proper execution of protocols (such as disinfection of those high-touch areas) and monitor fresh departments for blatant contamination.  

A lot of it comes down to common sense, but that doesn’t make it easy to follow through on.

“We’ve observed that many companies struggle to consistently implement COVID-19 protocols. The flu is likely to be the same, especially with the ‘COVID fatigue’ that people are starting to experience.”    

That same advice holds true for suppliers and distributors, though implementation may vary slightly, Herald said. If there’s a large amount of absenteeism due to the flu or COVID-19, it may affect the suppliers’ or distributors’ ability to get products to supermarkets.  

“Flu season doesn’t give anyone an excuse to let up on these preventive practices,” Herald said. “It’s important to get a flu vaccine, and continue hand hygiene, social distancing, wearing masks and surface disinfection.”  

Employees and customers may be becoming complacent to the COVID-10 prevention practices and signage, which makes flu prevention and awareness a bigger challenge this year. Stores can also change or update signage for prevention practices, retrain employees about flu and COVID-19 prevention and remind everyone of the expectations.  

“It’s also important to remind management about the importance of monitoring of the protocols, which will protect the bottom line by reducing absenteeism.”  

The responses for COVID-19 and the flu have a lot of overlap, so preventive actions will be effective against both viruses. It’s vital to maintain the COVID-19 protocols as well, such as masks, which is COVID-specific.  

Steritech provides objective assessments that help grocery chains identify and resolve safety risks and operational challenges at each of their stores. When it comes to preparing for flu season, especially with the dual threat of flu and COVID-19, Steritech also regularly visits individual stores to evaluate how well they’re executing the expected health and safety standards.

“Specialists provide immediate feedback to the location staff on both what's going well and what improvements they should make to ensure a safe customer and employee experience in their stores,” Herald said. 

In addition, Steritech’s trained specialists provide real-time coaching to frontline employees and Steritech’s data and analytics reporting helps corporate-level staff identify and resolve issues and rollout company-wide improvements, she added.