COVID-19, the disease spread by the novel coronavirus SARS-nCoV-2, has quickly spread to six continents and caused a public health emergency in more than 30 countries in Asia and Europe. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and urged countries to plan their preparedness and response actions in line with the WHO Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan.
Here in the United States, the number of individuals infected with the virus continues to climb on a daily basis, as do the number of deaths associated with it. As of March 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention reports 15,219 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 201 deaths related to the disease.
In response to the pandemic, many states and cities have declared emergencies, many conferences and events have been cancelled or postponed, travel has been limited, schools and universities have closed, and companies are exploring alternative ways to conduct business. As we consider the impact of coronavirus on food industry, I am reminded of a quote attributed to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
What We Know
The virus: We know that this pandemic is an outbreak of a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus. It was first detected in China and has now spread globally, including to the United States. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different species of animals. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections, ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Transmission: We also know that the disease can be transmitted from person to person through small droplets expelled from the nose or mouth of a person infected with COVID-19; these droplets are spread when the infected person coughs or exhales and can land on objects and surfaces nearby. Other people can then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. People can also catch the disease if they breathe in the droplets.
Impact on food and water: Does the virus transmit via food or water? The current information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says no, the virus is not transmitted via food or water.
However, the virus can survive on a surface for a day or longer (up to a week). It is inactivated by heat and common sanitizers such as chlorine and hydrogen peroxide. This stresses the importance of practicing good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and thorough cleaning and sanitation of food processing equipment and facilities. As per a March 20, 2020 FDA statement, “We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. … However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.”
The supply chain: The coronavirus is likely to disrupt the supply chain and influence ingredients and raw material supplies. While suppliers of ingredients and raw materials report little effect of the coronavirus epidemic on their ability to supply ingredients to food and beverage companies, it may be advisable for food companies to line up alternate suppliers that meet U.S. food safety requirements. Additionally, food companies should review their crisis management or emergency response plans to make sure they are prepared to handle any disruptions caused by pandemic.
Finally, protect yourself and others by following common sense precautions: Wash your hands; stay home when sick; avoid crowds and practice social distancing; follow advice from the CDC, FDA, and your local health authorities; and follow the science—keep calm and wash your hands!