Does Food Play A Role In Transmission Of Coronavirus ?

Woman wearing a mask hoping to prevent droplet infection by a virus like a coronavirus.
Photo by Teeramet Thanomkiat

The Coronavirus is certainly a flu which is being taken very seriously and beginning to have an impact on global supply chains. The particular strain 2019-nCoV has claimed at least 400 lives and by the time the outbreak has been completed, no doubt, many more will have been infected and more will have died. One of the issues confronting suppliers of food is whether it could possible be contaminated with this strain of virus.

Some current details first about the spread of the virus.

The coronavirus was first officially reported right at the end of the old year – 31st December 2019 in Wuhan which is the capital of Hubei province in China. Since then the virus has begun its spread across the country and is reported in a number of others. based on figures from the 4th December 2020, the World Health Organization as reported 20,471 cases with 2,788 cases being classified as severe. The mortality rate is 2%.

At the moment there are 159 confirmed cases in 23 countries. The most affected are Japan, Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia although it would not be surprising if there were not unreported cases in DPR Korea too given its proximity to China. Cases are also reported in Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Russia.

The concerns for consumers is whether imported food and packaging from China might be affected. Can the the new strain be transmitted via food ?

Various food bodies are beginning to publish data about the virus as a means to communicate concerns. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has published information concerning coronavirus transmission routes.  The BfR is an independent body sitting under the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. 

At the moment, information relating to transmission is still limited. Unconfirmed reports suggest that droplet infection is actually not the main route, it is more from hand to mouth contact.

Based on previous information concerning previous virus spread such as SARS and MERS, people are not infected with the virus through food. There is no evidence at the moment of consumption of food being a cause of this particular virus spread. The virus needs to be growing within a host such as human or animal and cannot grow in food. There is always the risk that transmission via surfaces recently contaminated with the virus is possible through what are called ‘smear infections’.

One aspect is that the virus can be destroyed with heat so the risk of infection could be reduced by heating food.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has some of the best information for food workers and others regarding hygiene and  approaches to managing food safety. I would recommend accessing their web-site for a rational approach to food handling and how to minimise contamination.

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