By Joe Whitworth on September 11, 2020
It is highly unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 is a food safety risk, according to an international group of scientists.
The International Commission for Microbiological Specifications of Foods (ICMSF) is a non-governmental organization and an observer to Codex Alimentarius. The chair is Martin Cole and members include Darrell W. Donahue and Lucia Anelich, as well as consultants Robert Buchanan and Jeffrey M. Farber.
The opinion covers the coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes an illness called COVID-19. ICMSF shared technical and scientific insights it considered relevant for professionals in and along the food supply chain and governments overseeing food safety.
The ICMSF members believe it is highly unlikely that ingestion of SARS-CoV-2 will result in illness because there is no documented evidence that food is a significant source and/or vehicle for transmission. It is vital that one differentiates a hazard from a risk, i.e., the presence of an infectious agent on food does not necessarily mean an infection will occur, said experts.
In April, the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization published COVID-19 food safety guidance for businesses and another document with advice for food authorities.
Sampling and testing for virus not best use of resources
ICMSF experts said SARS-CoV-2 should not be considered a food safety hazard since such a hazard enters the human body with food via the gastrointestinal tract, where it can infect organs and tissues elsewhere in the body. Scientists gave an example of the hepatitis A virus, which enters the bloodstream and causes foodborne disease, ultimately establishing infection in the liver.
ICMSF does not advise testing of food end products or food environmental areas for the SARS-CoV-2 virus for food safety assurance. As SARS-CoV-2 does not pose a food safety risk, systematic sampling and testing for the virus is of no added value for these purposes. Because of uncertainties and inconsistencies around expected analytical results (RNA detection only), sampling plans and subsequent corrective actions do not represent the best use of food processing facility resources.
Despite the billions of meals consumed and food packages handled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has not been any evidence that food, food packaging or food handling is a source or important transmission route for the virus.
The opinion notes there are a few reports of SARS-CoV-2 virus being found on food ingredients, products and packaging materials and the virus cannot multiply in foods.
“In many instances such reports are not specific as to how the virus was identified, what amount was found and whether the virus was viable and infectious. As methods used for identification of the virus are primarily gene-based, what most of these reports show is the presence of RNA of the virus. They show a hazard to human health may be present. They do not show there actually is a hazard present such as a viable virus or that it is a risk to human health via ingestion or handling of the food. Viruses present on food or packaging will lose viability over time.”
Food trade and supply chains have seen major disruptions due to the impact on health of the workforce operating along the farm-to-fork supply chain.
Some countries are restricting food imports, testing imported products and/or asking for COVID-19 freedom statements. ICMSF believes these controls are not scientifically justified, as there is no documented evidence that food is a significant source and/or vehicle for transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
Some Chinese importers are requesting exporters sign a COVID-19 declaration. China’s customs officials have been testing for COVID-19 on food, packaging and the environment at the border since February this year.
Reports from China have suggested imported salmon from Norway, chicken from Brazil and shrimp from Ecuador or their packaging has tested positive for the virus. Following the chicken findings, Philippines suspended poultry imports from Brazil in mid-August and Hong Kong banned imports from the one affected plant. Both countries have now lifted these restrictions.
Discovery of genetic traces of SARS-CoV-2 on food may raise concerns about safety but this does not indicate a risk for public health and should not be a basis for restricting food trade or initiating a recall, said ICMSF experts.
COVID-19 has had a major impact on the production, trade and distribution of food to the extent that food security is being affected in several regions.
ICMSF said SARS-CoV-2 is an occupational hazard that may affect the health of employees and their ability to work. The focus for food businesses should be on protecting workers, consumers and restaurant patrons from being infected by person-to-person spread.
In food businesses, effective measures can best be built upon and integrated into the good hygienic practices and food safety management systems, such as those based on HACCP, that firms may already have to ensure hygiene in operations and consumer safety of products produced, handled and manufactured. Companies should validate whether measures are effective and should regularly verify whether they are implemented appropriately in daily operations.
Processing environment risk factors such as humidity, cold temperatures, limited air flow, physical exertion, talking and shouting have been suggested to increase the opportunity for person-to-person spread.