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.