The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been quickly spreading across the globe, which triggered most affected countries to officially declare a state of public health emergency. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled this rather fast outbreak as pandemic. Food companies were urged to apply proper hygiene practices such as regular handwashing and surface cleaning to keep the risk of contagion at its lowest level.1 At the moment, there are many ongoing clinical trials evaluating potential treatments for COVID-19 but no specific vaccine or medicine have been publicly made available, as of this writing.
COVID-19 belongs to a family of viruses that cause respiratory issues and can be passed on directly through contact with an infected person’s body fluids (i.e, cough or sneeze discharge) and indirectly, through contact with contaminated surfaces.2 But can the virus be transmitted through edible goods?
Coronavirus Transmission through Food
According to the CDC, there is no current indication to support the transmission of COVID-19 through food since, in general, it needs a living host on which to grow. However, sharing food and beverages, especially in public places, is discouraged. Moreover, good food safety practices are highly recommended, including refrigerating, keeping raw and cooked goods separated and heating food at suitable temperature (around 75 ̊ C).3
If the consumed food is hypothetically contaminated with the virus, the stomach acid (due to its acidic nature) will immediately inactivate it. In addition, COVID-19 cannot affect the body internally via the intestines. One rare exception to the previous statement occurs when the virus gets in contact with a specific type of respiratory cells.
According to food safety experts, foodborne illnesses are generally caused by bacterial cells that have the ability to grow in food and multiply rapidly within a short amount of time. On the other hand, viruses are dormant particles floating around living cells; only when they successfully breaks into the aforementioned cells, the multiplication process can take place.1,3
General Food Safety Advice for Food Businesses
Food manufacturers must follow good hygiene and safety practices to help ensure the consistent quality and safety of their products:4,5,6
- Purchase raw material from reputable sources
- Cook food thoroughly and maintain safe holding temperatures
- Clean and sanitize surfaces (such as cooking boards, refrigerators handles, etc.) and equipment
- Properly train staff in taking extreme hygiene measures
- Employees showing signs of infectious illness must not attend work
- Implement appropriate risk management strategies (e.g,. encourage social distancing and endorse online meetings when applicable)
- Number of staff in a kitchen or food preparation area should be kept to a bare minimum
- Space out workstations and food preparation areas, when possible
- World Health Organization. (2020). Coronavirus disease: advice for the public.
- Food Standards Australia & New Zealand. (2020). Novel Coronavirus and Food Safety.
- CDC. 2020. Food Safety and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
- Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. (2020). Coronavirus Resource Center.
- European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 2020. Coronavirus: no evidence that food is a source or transmission route.
- USDA.(2020). Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).
As the Ebola scare spreads in the United States and threatens the rest of the world, it is a race against time to find an effective vaccine or cure. Until then, the old reliable public health method of contact tracing, patient isolation and quarantine of suspected cases to disrupt transmission remains the only choice out there. The establishment of body temperature monitoring stations at the major airports will only capture elevated temperature symptomatic cases. This implies that infected individuals still within the incubation period of up to 21 days may not have high fever and thus may slip through the system. Examples include the index case from Liberia that arrived Dallas, Texas without elevated temperature or symptoms, and the recently infected Dallas Nurse that was cleared by CDC to fly to Cleveland, Ohio without elevated body temperature.
Apart from airports and hospitals, other public places, including retail food service outlets, have the risk of becoming potential sources of contact for fully bloom symptomatic cases that can indeed transmit the Ebola virus and infect several others. Recently a Doctor under voluntary Ebola quarantine after returning from Liberia broke the quarantine to visit her favorite restaurant.
Some of the Ebola transmission dynamics that should be a source of concern to the retail industry are as follows:
- Ebola virus is transmitted through close contact with body fluids (blood, urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, semen, etc.) from a sick Ebola patient.
- Ebola virus can spread through contact with objects likes clothes, bedding, syringes/sharps, medical equipment or contact surfaces contaminated by blood or body fluids of a patient.
- Emergency body fluids incidents are regular occurrence from customers in retail food facilities.
- According to CDC, Ebola virus dried on contact surfaces like door knobs and countertops can survive for several hours, while Ebola virus in body fluids can survive for several days on contact surfaces at room temperature.
- Restrooms at retail outlets are accessible to both customers and the general public, and thus may constitute a hazard in Ebola virus transmission, if not properly cleaned and disinfected (not sanitized!).
- Ebola patients can transmit the virus within the time frame of the first appearance of symptoms before hospital isolation. Patients may visit retail environments during this infectious period before the onset of severe symptoms that will trigger immediate hospitalization.
The foodservice and retail environment is among the vulnerable public places where infection may be possible if appropriate measures, protocols and employee training are not in place. What can retail management do differently to be ready and to proactively safeguard their facilities and protect their customers and the entire public health? The good news is that a lot of these measures are already contained in the Food Code and thus would only need to be reinforced to highlight their importance during these Ebola times.
Some of these proactive measures may include the following:
- Establish proper protocol for cleaning and disposal of body fluids (see previous blog on Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Foodservice). The pathogen kill-step is the most important step in any body fluid clean-up process and must be done with a disinfectant grade chemical. Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, disposable aprons, and protective eye goggles is mandatory.
- Compliance with use of gloves and no bare hands contact with ready-to-eat foods.
- Adequate and frequent washing of hands by food handlers while encouraging hand washing by customers through the provision of the necessary accessories in hand wash sinks. According to CDC, Ebola virus is readily killed by using soap and water, bleach or hospital grade disinfectants.
- Handle body fluids in the restroom, grocery store aisles, play areas, dining rooms, and kitchen areas as potential infectious materials.
- Establish and implement an appropriate Employee Health Policy without punitive measures; to encourage hourly paid employees to stay home when sick.
- Introduce a non-residual disinfectant grade chemical (instead of regular sanitizers) for disinfecting restrooms, play areas and high touch points like doors knobs and equipment handles. Note: Disinfectants cannot be used on food contact surfaces.
- Eliminate or put on-hold programs like Back Stage Tours that bring customers in close proximity with food and food preparation areas at the back of the house.
- Buffet style food services should develop a better strategy to completely protect food from self-service customers.
- Proper cleaning and sanitizing of food contact surfaces using best practices like the single use no-rinse cleaning and sanitizing wipes from Sani Professional (see previous blog on Clean Matters). Hand sanitizers should be made available to customers at strategic locations throughout the retail facility to encourage use.
- Training and re-training of employees on best practices cannot be over emphasized in this new era of Ebola scare and confusion.
Finally, retail and foodservice employees should be trained to recognize the obvious signs of sick customers especially if accompanied with vomiting and diarrhea. The affected incident area should be cordoned off and the facility may be closed down depending on the severity of the suspected case. The State and Local Public Health officials and the CDC should be notified immediately. In these Ebola times, it’s better to err on the side of caution than to regret actions on a potentially positive Ebola case.
It is indeed a good time also to rethink the level of food safety culture in your organization and what you can do to ensure that your organization is not in the news for the wrong reasons. Foodservice and retail operations must remain on alert until the US Public Health Service and other relevant US government agencies have a complete handle on this monumental public health emergency.