Coronavirus and food safety risk: what do the experts say?
October 15th , 2020 by Monika Australia & Asia Pacific
Could the coronavirus / SARS-CoV-2 pose a new, “non-traditional” food safety risk? Despite official advice to the contrary, this question continues to be raised as new research is conducted into the virus’ behaviour and new outbreaks emerge with an unknown origin.
We decided to see what the experts say – and to also look at the most recent research studies that have explored this hypothesis. We’ve summarised the opinions below, so that you can make up your own mind about the level of risk to your organisation and your customers.
The official advice from the WHO and FSANZ
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is “highly unlikely” that the coronavirus can be contracted by eating contaminated food, with primary transmission of the virus being person-to-person.
Similar advice has been issued by the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), who state that “There’s no evidence to suggest people will get infected by swallowing the virus in, or on, food or drink.”
FSANZ also cites research that has shown the virus is inactivated by acids in the stomach, and is therefore unlikely to reach the gastrointestinal tract and cause illness.
The International Commission for Microbiological Specifications of Foods (ICMSF) has also released its opinion, stating that the virus “should not be considered a food safety hazard since a true food safety hazard enters the human body with food via the gastro-intestinal tract, where it can infect organs/tissues elsewhere in the human body.”
Recent research: possible food-based sources of transmission?
A study conducted in Singapore suggests that the virus can remain viable in either frozen or refrigerated food for up to 21 days. However the study is not peer reviewed and does not prove that the virus can be transmitted via this method.
The researchers claim that contamination via imported foods or food packaging was a possible explanation for recent unknown outbreaks in Vietnam, New Zealand and parts of China. But at this stage, this is mere hypothesis and yet to be proven.
Another possibility is that the virus can be spread via contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. A research study in the New England Journal of Medicine assessed how long the virus could live on different surfaces and reported that it could remain viable for:
- Up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel
- Up to four hours on copper
- Up to 24 hours on cardboard.
Similarly, a recent Australian CSIRO study has found that the virus can survive for up to 28 days at 20°C on common surfaces such as glass, stainless steel and paper or polymer banknotes.
However the ICMSF says the chances of transmission via surfaces “appears to be very small”. Yet it still cautions food producers to follow “good food hygiene practices to minimise any possibility of food or food contact surfaces as a vector for SARS-CoV-2.”
This statement echoes the advice of the WHO, which has urged the food industry to “strengthen food hygiene and sanitation practices” in response to the virus. They have advised the food industry to:
- Reinforce personal hygiene measures including frequent handwashing and sanitation of surfaces.
- Provide refresher training on food hygiene principles to eliminate or reduce the risk of food surfaces or food packaging becoming contaminated with the virus from food workers.
The answer? Keep doing best practice in food safety
Regardless of the unknowns, both the WHO and the ICMSF refer to HACCP-based food safety management systems as a sound mechanism for minimising potential hazards or risks associated with SARS-CoV-2.
According to the ICSMF, these are “the foundation for ensuring food safety and form a strong basis for minimizing person-to-person spread and cross-contamination of SARS-CoV-2 in food operations.”
How a digital food safety system can help
A complete digital food safety system that covers both temperature control and hygiene practices is your best defence against the spread of food-borne illness – whether you choose to consider SARS-CoV-2 as one or not.
Even if the virus can’t be transmitted via food, with MonikaPrime, you can prevent the spread of this life-threatening disease by:
- Ensuring routine hygiene and sanitation tasks such as handwashing and sanitation of surfaces are completed on time, every time.
- Eliminating manual temperature checks of your refrigerated units, thereby keeping staff movement and contact with surfaces to a minimum.
- Installing temperature sensors in your dishwashers to ensure they are sanitising your cutlery, utensils, plates and wine glasses to at least 80 degrees Celsius.
- To find out more, see: Adapting your food safety program for COVID-19 or contact the Monika team.
World Health Organisation (WHO) (published 7 April 2020) COVID-19 and food safety: guidance for food businesses
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) (published 22 September 2020) Transmission of COVID-19 by food and food packaging
International Commission for Microbiological Specifications of Foods (ICMSF) (published 3 September 2020) ICMSF opinion on SARS-CoV-2 and its relationship to food safety
Fisher, D et al (published 18 August 2020) Seeding of outbreaks of COVID-19 by contaminated fresh and frozen food, bioRxiv (Cold spring harbour laboratory)
Van Doremalen et al (published 16 April 2020) Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1, New England Journal of Medicine
Riddell, S et al (published 7 October 2020) The effect of temperature on persistence of SARS‑CoV‑2 on common surfaces, Virology Journal