COVID-19 Preparedness in the Food Industry

On 11 March 2020, the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization as the virus has spread to many countries. It’s the first time the WHO has called an outbreak a pandemic since the H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009.

What is confirmed is that the virus is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person (generated through coughing and sneezing). Individuals can also be infected from and touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and touching their face (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth). Besides, the COVID-19 virus may survive on surfaces for several hours, yet disinfectants can kill it.

On 9 March, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) stated on their website that there is currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission of the novel coronavirus, and that they are closely monitoring the situation as any new information about the outbreak comes to light. EFSA’s opinion is based on the fact that previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), show that transmission through food consumption did not occur. BfR, the federal institute of risk assessment in Germany concurred with the findings, stating that there are currently no cases that have shown any evidence of humans being infected with the new type of coronavirus by another method, such as via the consumption of contaminated food or via imported toys. Transmission via surfaces which have recently been contaminated with viruses is, nonetheless, possible through smear infections. This is only likely to occur during a short period after contamination, due to the relatively low stability of coronaviruses in the environment.

This virus is not SARS, it’s not MERS, and it’s not influenza. It is a unique virus with unique characteristics

WHO Director General

A recent review analyzed 22 studies and revealed that human coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus or endemic human coronaviruses (HCoV) can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days, but can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62–71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute. Other biocidal agents such as 0.05–0.2% benzalkonium chloride or 0.02% chlorhexidine digluconate are less effective

This is what we know “so far”. As the WHO Director-General stated “This virus is not SARS, it’s not MERS, and it’s not influenza. It is a unique virus with unique characteristics”, and scientists are working around the clock to address critical gaps in knowledge.

In a recent study (US government work) conducted by the National Institutes of Health, Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, with funding from the U.S. government and the National Science Foundation, Covid-19 was detected up to three hours later in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.