Published 12 March 2020
As of early March, the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, are quickly spreading around the world and having drastic effects on the health and livelihood of populations. To date, much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, and these unknowns are creating legitimate fears about the safety of food and risks involved with consuming food from food businesses. As a result, we are starting to see drastic economic effects on the food industry as a whole. Here is what we do know about COVID-19 and its risk to the food industry.
No, COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness in the way we traditionally think of food-borne illnesses. By definition, food-borne illnesses are those that occur from pathogens getting into food and multiplying to unsafe levels. Pathogens can reach unsafe levels rapidly; one single-celled bacteria can become two million in as little as seven hours. When these pathogens are consumed by humans, they then make their way to the digestive tract and continue to grow, causing an infection. Some bacteria create and release a poison or toxin within the food which can also make humans severely ill.
Currently, there is no evidence of COVID-19 growing in food and consequently being consumed by humans. According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, “Coronaviruses need a host (animal or human) to grow in and cannot grow in food.” Although it cannot grow and live in food like traditional food-borne illnesses, COVID-19 could potentially still be passed on to customers through biologically contaminated food.
There are three types of contamination that can occur in food — physical, chemical, and biological. Physical contamination is when a physical object finds its way into food, which is then served to and consumed by a customer. Physical objects can be anything from a piece of wire from a scrubbing brush, to jewelry from food workers and pests. Chemical contamination is when chemicals that are used within a food business come into contact with food that is in storage or being prepared. This often occurs when staff use chemicals to clean and sanitize items in the business and then move on to preparing food without cleaning their hands. Biological contamination occurs when food becomes contaminated with living organisms, such as biological matter from humans, pests or microorganisms. Biological contamination of food is a big concern when it comes to the spread of COVID-19.
Whilst current research on COVID-19 indicates it cannot grow and live within food like other bacteria or viruses, there is still the potential for it to live on food surfaces. Should a food worker infected with COVID-19 cough or sneeze onto ready-to-eat food or the plate that the food is on, there is the potential for the infected droplets to be touched by a customer. That customer can then touch their face, mouth or eyes and become infected with COVID-19.
Biological contamination is not only a risk to customers, but to all food workers within a premises as well. Should an infected food worker cough or sneeze on food preparation surfaces such as cutting boards, knives, or pots and pans, there is a risk that another food worker could touch those items and come into contact with the infected droplets. One staff member can easily infect other staff members on the premises this way.
The highest risk of contracting COVID-19 is through direct contact with droplets from a person’s cough or sneeze, shortly after they have left the infected person. This means that contracting COVID-19 from a food shipment or packaging is less of a threat. According to the CDC, “there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.” This emphasizes the importance of maintaining strict standards when it comes to receiving and storing food when it arrives on your premises.
However, there is the potential of spreading COVID-19 through packages that are directly handed off to customers in take-out and home delivery services. Many food business are switching to a take-out or home delivery model in order to provide customers with other ways of purchasing food. Many customers are afraid to go and eat out at local restaurants or bars, so take-out or home delivery services are a great way to keep your customers satisfied while keeping them safe. With these types of service, food businesses need to take extra precautions to ensure that food packaging and bags are not contaminated with COVID-19 from delivery personnel. If the delivery person is a member of your staff, ensure that they wear personal protective equipment. You can also seal the bags that hold food containers to ensure they can’t be contaminated by the delivery person. It is also a good idea to sanitize delivery bags and boxes before each delivery.
Pandemics such as the COVID-19 pandemic can have long lasting effects on communities and businesses. As a food business, you serve and employ members of your community. Food businesses need to take precise action to protect staff and customers from contracting and spreading COVID-19 on the premises. RespondFirst’s COVIDSafe™ Professional for Food Service program will train your employees on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, new cleaning and sanitizing protocols for COVID-19 and how to serve food safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.