No evidence so far shows that SARS-Cov-2 can spread through food. While comforting, that fact has not prevented major changes in food supply chains, customer demands, and safety strategies since the COVID-19 outbreak.
In March 2020, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared that “experiences from previous outbreaks of coronaviruses … show that transmission through food consumption did not occur. At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that coronavirus is any different in this respect.”
Fast forward from that statement to today, and there’s still no evidence of foodborne transmission. However, consumers have been barraged by news and social media messages about how they could contract the virus, and many now distrust any supply chain, including food. As the world looks toward returning to a more normal, working, and economically thriving society, monitoring processes for cleanliness have never been more important.
Consumer Contamination Fears on the Rise
A recent Nielsen Global Intelligence poll showed that a sizeable number of respondents did not trust the source of fresh produce, meats, and other foods. The consultancy Campden BRI group reported that retailers are getting more questions about the national origin of their ingredients and the length of time a virus can last on surfaces, and that there is a general lack of understanding of how viruses are transmitted and what basic food hygiene steps have been in place for years. A smaller but still worrisome number of people claim to have taken to washing their fresh food with soap and water, a practice that is strongly discouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other public health authorities.
At the same time, the food industry has faced major adjustments in response to the virus outbreak. Sales of shelf-stable foods and drinks have surged in the United States since March 2020, including an 84% increase in powdered milk during one week in February, according to Nielsen. At the same time, plant based, shelf-stable milk sales shot up 323 percent. Sales of bread, eggs, rice, beans, and frozen foods have also increased, while interest in fresh produce has dropped or has remained steady. In addition, since most restaurants are closed to sit-in dining, foods normally shipped to them have been diverted to grocery stores and consumer markets, creating new supply relationships and, with them, new challenges in maintaining safety. USDA has had to relax package labelling requirements to ensure a supply of food to grocery stores.
Start—but Don’t End—with Handwashing
Standard hygiene practices such as washing hands, cooking meat thoroughly, and avoiding potential cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked foods are still the mainstay of food safety. But processors, retailers, and restaurants alike will have to do much more to prove to a suspicious (and potentially fearful) public that they can safely buy products.
“Consumers will be seeking greater assurance that the products they buy are free of risk and of the highest quality when it comes to safety standards and efficacy, particularly with respect to cleaning products, antiseptics, and food items,” wrote Regan Leggett, executive director of Nielsen, in a March 2020 report. “In the short term, this intensified demand from consumers will require manufacturers, retailers, and other related industry players to clearly communicate why their products and supply chains should be trusted. In the longer term, and dependent on the eventual scale and impact that COVID-19 has on consumer markets, it may speed up a re-think on how shoppers evaluate purchases and the benefits that they see as the key factors to consider.”
Regardless of the viral outbreak and its impact on food supply management, risks from bacterial, fungal, and other contamination have not disappeared. One in six Americans get sick from eating contaminated food every year, and FDA and USDA continue to report recalls and alerts about microbial outbreaks. Approximately 3,000 Americans die from food contamination each year, and illnesses cost businesses more than $15 billion a year.
ATP Maintains Current Safety, Helps Build Consumer Trust
Many methods help detect and remove the threat of foodborne infection, including visual inspections, cell culture, and whole genome sequencing. But these all come with disadvantages, ranging from the incompleteness of visual inspection, the expertise (and expense) needed to perform sequencing, and the time necessary to retrieve cell culture results.
One method of hygiene monitoring—detecting adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy-delivering molecule in every living cell—is a proven, simple, cost-effective, and rapid first line of defense in food safety monitoring and hazard detection.
Because viruses do not contain ATP—instead they hijack other cells’ metabolic structure and reproduce using the host cell—ATP monitoring systems cannot detect viruses; however, reducing the possibility of bacteria and other host cells from surfaces reduces the risk of contamination, including viruses. In addition, because SARS-Cov2, like other coronaviruses, is susceptible to strong disinfectant chemicals, a rigorous and thorough cleaning plan can help defend against COVID-19. In fact, CDC and WHO have advised businesses specializing in food, as well as airlines, hospitality companies, and offices, to adopt a more aggressive cleaning and disinfecting program. The EPA, along with providing a list of disinfectants approved for use against SARS-Cov2, has also advised a three-fold reduction in contamination levels on all surfaces that contact products or members of the public.
Ideal Monitoring Systems
For food safety professionals, ATP monitoring delivers on several areas that they have prioritized—faster time to results, accurate readings, reproducibility, actionable data, simplicity of use, lower cost per test, and reliable equipment. Instruments like the Hygiena EnSURE Touch Monitoring System deliver ATP results, expressed in relative light units (RLUs), in 10 seconds.
ATP monitoring instruments are invaluable for their ability to fulfill these needs, and they generate reports, graphs, and charts that help management make cleaning improvements, train personnel, and clearly illustrate performance. Once testing has begun, results can be immediately analyzed to give feedback on cleaning performance and areas for improvement. This is crucial for adjusting methods to meet new supply chains and customer demands. A good ATP system should be easy to use and should include:
- Wi-Fi capabilities and wireless sync technology for secure data transfer to analysis software.
- Ample collection and storage of important testing data such as sample location, line name, cleaner used, date and time stamped, secured access, and surface type.
- Built-in screen sharing to train remote teams; ATP has been shown to be a valuable tool for education of staff and a powerful way to reinforce a facility’s cleanliness and safety culture.
- A responsive shatter-proof touch screen that works while wearing gloves; this ruggedness expands the range in which it can be used.
Just as important as the measuring instrument are the test devices used to collect samples. These need to be convenient to use, have a low risk of cross-contamination, and be able to effectively collect residues. Test devices should be integrated, should be all-in-one and ready to use, and should contain liquid-stable reagents. Test devices should be available for solid surfaces and for liquid samples such as CIP rinses and other water samples. They should have a simple activation step and tolerate ambient temperature abuse.
Government and Public Expectations
USDA and FDA do not endorse a specific technology or brand-name product under the implementation of FSMA, but, like nearly all government agencies, they do mention in certain guidance documents the array of sanitation/cleaning monitoring technologies available, including visual inspection, bioluminescence tags, and ATP detection.
The agencies want to see actions taken when data is out of specification and documentation of efforts to prevent contamination, adulteration, allergen exposure, and other aspects of food safety. How efforts are carried out will vary with each food manufacturer, distributor, farmer, or other part of the supply chain (including import/export).
It’s important to emphasize that ATP does not directly measure any specific microorganism (like bacteria, fungus, or molds) any more than it can detect a virus. Nor is a “zero” RLU reading particularly helpful by itself, because machines and surfaces are different and baseline values need to be set. However, as consumers become more selective in what food they purchase, quantifying and validating your cleaning efforts will be essential to maintaining a healthy supply line and, ultimately, to your brand’s success.