Food safety implications of COVID-19
7 June 2021
To recognise World Food Safety Day 2021, Richard Onley – Principal Scientist at Leatherhead Food Research, gives an overview of the wide-ranging food safety implications that COVID-19 has had on the world over the last year and a half.
Food and COVID-19 transmission
As worldwide monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 continues to grow, numerous studies have been conducted to investigate if food and food packaging play a role in the spread of COVID-19. To date, there have been no reported cases of contraction of the virus through contaminated foods. This is largely due to the virus targeting the respiratory system and not the gastrointestinal one, and the fact that the virus is susceptible to cooking temperatures.
Outbreaks in food production facilities
There have however been several outbreaks amongst food production workers, the largest outbreak of this kind was at a meat factory in Germany in May/June 2020 where approximately 20% (1,413) workers were infected. The rapid spread was largely attributed to the high physicality of the work and re-circulated air1. No data is available as to whether COVID-19 was transferred to the food itself during this outbreak.
Increased sanitation measures
It is well established that food packaging may be contaminated, but good hygiene practices such as regular hand washing reduces the risk of spreading COVID-19 by up to 38%. Over the past year the general public has become accustomed and familiar with increased sanitisation of their skin, possessions, surfaces, and contact points, to reduce the risk of transfer of the virus from surfaces. Current WHO guidelines recommend alcohol sanitisers should contain 60 – 95% alcohol, however, levels of 80-85% have been shown to reduce the contact time required to neutralise virus particles2. This could be an important area of development as the world begins to emerge from the current pandemic and attitudes towards rigorous, regular hand sanitisation begins to evolve.
An increase in food waste has been reported during the pandemic – exacerbated by panic buying seen in many countries around the world. For example, a paper published in November 2020 estimated that some areas of the United States have reported an increase of up to 12% in food waste3. This has a knock-on impact on the environment, not only by increasing carbon footprints due to the extra waste collections required but also from the additional CO2 produced by the decomposition of the food waste itself.
How COVID-19 is shaping the future of food safety
It’s predicted that the pandemic will accelerate automation in all areas of food supply and disposal. There is a multitude of safety benefits that automation can bring, including limiting the introduction of contaminants, reduction of human-human transmission and improved management of fluctuations in staff availability.
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- Richard Onley – Principal Scientist, Leatherhead Food Research
 Gunther. T., Czeh-Sioli. M., Indenbirken. D., Robitaille. A., Tenhaken. P., Exner. M., Ottinger. M., Fischer. N., Grundhoff. A., Brinkmann. M., (2020). SARS-CoV-2 outbreak investigation in a German processing plant. EMBO Molecular Medicine. 12 e13296.
 Berardi. A., Perinelli., D., Merchant. H., Bisharat., Basheti. I., Bonacucina., Cespi. M., Palmieri. G., (2020) Hand sanitisers amid COVID -19: A critical review of alcohol-based products on the market and formulation approaches to respond to increasing demand. International Journal of Pharmaceutics. 584, 119431.
 Lacombe. A., Quintela. I., Liao. Y., Vivian. C., (2020) Food safety lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Food Safety, volume 41, issue 2, e12878.