Is COVID-19 able to spread through foods? Let’s see what science has to say about it.
To use or not to use face masks? Is it 1.5 or 2 meters of social distancing? Are the new vaccines working as expected? I bet you all have been involved in any of these coronavirus-related discussions. These three issues are currently the main topics of any informative media because their performances directly affect us. But… What about the food? As far as I am concerned, humans are heterotroph beings, meaning that we can not produce our own food but take our nutrition from other sources like plant and animal matter.
After more than a year since the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak was declared a global health emergency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to underscore that there is no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with or as a likely source of viral transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus causing COVID-19.
How does COVID get transmitted?
As you might know already, COVID-19 is an easily transmissible disease spreading from person to person via cough, sneeze, respiratory droplets, or exhale. Coronaviruses are strongly related to zoonotic transmission as they circulate among wild animals. In fact, the first infections were associated with a seafood market where live and slaughtered exotic animals were sold. Hence, if those infections were related to animals intended to be consumed, why we should not be worried about food transmission?
In previous coronaviruses outbreaks such as MERS and SARS-CoV, food was not a transmission route. Besides, it has been reported that the acidic conditions of the stomach (pH < 3.5) were able to inactivate SARS-CoV. COVID-19, though, may reach fresh food products (e.g. vegetables, fruits or bakery) or food packaging through an infected person who is sneezing or coughing directly on them. Transmission may therefore be possible only if the virus is transferred shortly afterwards via the hands or the food itself to the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, or eyes.
Physical contact and shared food during a conference resulted in a cluster of COVID-19 patients in Singapore.
How the food industry usually deals with viruses?
Within the food manufacturing sector, close working between individuals have been avoided and both personal and respiratory hygiene activities enforced. Besides, air ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, are effective and easy-to-organize tools in place in order to reduce the risk of transmission through the air. In addition to conventional air sanitation protocols, aerosolization of hydrogen peroxide, UV-C irradiation or in-situ ozone generation are demonstrated complementary techniques for effective virucidal treatment of the air.
The stability of COVID-19 once it has reached the food matrix is similar to previous coronaviruses. It is highly stable at 4 ºC and can remain infectious at freezing temperatures (-20 ºC) for up to 2 years. However, COVID-19 is reported to be thermolabile (subjected to destruction, decomposition, or change in response to heat) at typical cooking temperatures >70 ºC. These outcomes suggest that while transmission from cooked foods is unlikely, it still is possible in frozen foods.
Another remarkable precaution measure at the beginning of the crisis was that many restaurants, cafeterias, and health authorities in Central Europe stopped serving rare steaks and meats due to zoonotic transmission uncertainty.
Regarding water, it is neither considered as a way to spread SARS-CoV-2 because the typical water treatment methods are sufficient against the virus.
Food safety in the COVID-19 era
Food safety is a critical pillar of the food system in the era of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Below are two figures that summarise the safety measures that the food sector has proposed during the current pandemic. Although these measures apply from farm to fork, most precautions are critically necessary at the last stages (e.g., consumption). This makes sense as the more we move to the final stages of the food supply chain, the more people (potential infection sources) are involved.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although there is a low risk of getting COVID-19 from food and packaging or treated drinking water, it is imperative for consumers to further reduce the likelihood of getting infected by following the food safety measures in place.