COVID-19 Traceability and food safety in the digital age

5 June 2020

To the delight of many New Zealanders, restaurants, cafes and bars were recently permitted to reopen under New Zealand's COVID-19 alert system. However, with the pandemic still gripping many countries, the risk of COVID-19 transmission remains.

The hospitality industry responded to Alert Level 2 obligations with a range of technological solutions intended to manage traceability and food safety obligations. While essentially all of those obligations will be permitted to be removed with a ​move to Level 1 (as announced this week), it is worth considering what could be needed to ensure food safety in the future.

Although these responses have been triggered by a global pandemic, it is likely that technological solutions to address traceability and food safety issues are here to stay. A recent bylaw introduced by the Auckland City Council reinforces this theme.

Technology under the COVID​-19 alert system

At Alert Level 2, all businesses may open their premises to the public if they have a robust contact tracing system in place (which records every person who enters the premises), physical distancing of one metre is maintained between groups of customers and the business is able to meet applicable public health requirements, including hygiene measures, physical distancing, hand washing, and regular cleaning.

Hospitality businesses must also ensure they meet the three S's – seated, separated and service. Key restrictions around the number of patrons served must also be enforced.

From next week, it is expected that New Zealand will move to Alert Level 1. This means almost all of the current restrictions will be lifted. Individuals are however expected to keep track of where they have been, for example by using the government's COVID-tracer app, to assist with any contact tracing (if required).

As a result of the requirements imposed as the country moved through the Alert level system, we have seen a range of digital measures adopted by those operating within the hospitality industry, including:

  • QR (or “quick response") codes, which enable guests to scan and quickly visit the appropriate site or page used to facilitate contact tracing,​
  • video recording technology, which requires guests to verbally confirm their name, contact details and symptomology before being permitted to enter an establishment,
  • online sites, which guests are required to visit and populate before being served, and
  • downloadable 'apps', which require users to first download and then enter their details prior to service.

Food businesses operating as essential services also implemented digital solutions to facilitate the ordering and delivery of various raw goods during Alert Levels 3 and 4, including the use of online service systems and application technologies.

The role of technology in traceability and food safety moving forward

Greater transparency around traceability and food safety is an issue that consumers have been alive to for a number of years, particularly with regard to ethical sourcing and free-range farming practices. In response, we have seen the hospitality and food industries implement new technologies to educate consumers about the products they are purchasing.1

The effects of COVID-19 have meant that the traceability and safety of all foods is now at the forefront of the consumer conscience, both locally and overseas. It is therefore expected that digital traceability will become the norm in the hospitality and food industries moving forward, with consumers requesting access to the following sorts of information in order to make an appropriate risk assessment:

  • where a food, and its components, have been sourced from,
  • the parties that have been involved with the supply chain process, and
  • how a food has been handled (particularly where that food originates overseas).

A new Food Safety Information Bylaw (Bylaw) introduced by Auckland City Council supports this theme. The general purpose of the Bylaw is to help consumers make informed decisions when purchasing food. The Bylaw came into force on 23 May 2020, and (inter alia) introduces a new requirement that food grade information be displayed on the homepages of any digital platform that a food business has control over (as well as any physical sites). The term 'digital platform' includes any website, app, social medium or similar. Affected businesses will need to ensure compliance with the digital display requirements of the Bylaw by 31 December 2020 (with the commencement date of such rules being pushed back in recognition of the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Hospitality businesses should carefully consider the requirements of the Bylaw to ensure any digital platforms they operate are compliant. Those operating in the hospitality and food industries should also assess whether to implement permanent traceability and food safety technology that informs customers about the safety of their premises, as well as the food supplied, to keep up with demand in this area.

If you have any questions about the matters raised in this article please get in touch with the contacts listed, or your usual Bell Gully adviser.

1 Consider, for example, Trace My Egg, a website managed by Egg Producers Federation of New Zealand that allows consumers to trace which farm their eggs have come from by using a 5-digit code that is 'stamped' on to each egg.​

This publication is necessarily brief and general in nature. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.