'Highly unlikely' you can get Covid-19 from food, say experts

09 September 2020 - 07:30
By Wendy Knowler
The coronavirus is not likely to constitute a food safety risk, according to the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF).
Image: 123RF/RICHARD THOMAS The coronavirus is not likely to constitute a food safety risk, according to the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF).

It’s highly unlikely that you can get Covid-19 from food, a team of international experts on food contamination has said.

“Considering that there are to date no proven cases or scientific associations between food consumption and Covid-19, it is highly unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 constitutes a food safety risk,” said the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF) in a position paper circulated this week.

Spearheaded by Pretoria-based microbiologist Prof Lucia Anelich, the initiative saw her collaborating with colleagues in Canada, the US and the Netherlands, with inputs from other ICMSF members and consultants in academia, government and industry across the world.

“It’s vital that one differentiates a hazard from a risk,” said Anelich. “The mere presence of an infectious agent in a food does not necessarily translate into human infection.

“Despite the many billions of meals consumed and food packages handled since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, to date there has not been any evidence that food, food packaging or food handling is a source or important transmission route for SARS-CoV-2 resulting in Covid-19.”

So there’s no need for people to wipe down all food they buy and bring into their homes with disinfectant, she said.

“I bring my groceries home, wash my hands, unpack them, then wash my hands again - that’s it.”

“SARS-CoV-2 is primarily transmitted from person-to-person over close distances via droplets/aerosols from the nose and/or mouth. The transmission of virus particles is especially problematic indoors where poor ventilation may exist,” said the ICMSF.

Anelich said it appears that the risk of surface to person transmission was initially overstated. “We’re now of the view that 90 to 95% of transmission is person-to-person.”

“Virus particles have been reported to survive for hours or days on surfaces,” said the ICMSF. “But the chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces appears to be very small.”

There is no justification for countries to restrict food imports, test imported food products or insist on statements verifying products as "Covid-19 free", said the body.

Last month the Chinese government reported that a sample of frozen chicken wings imported from Brazil had tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen - the latest in a series of reports of contaminated imported food products in China.

Chinese health authorities have repeatedly told the public to be cautious about buying imported meat and seafood. 

This is despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that the risk of infection by the virus from food products, food packaging or bags is "thought to be very low”.

For food businesses, the focus should be on protecting food workers, consumers and restaurant patrons from becoming infected by person-to-person SARS-CoV-2 spread, added the ICMSF.

GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.