COVID-19 not a food safety hazard – FAO

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The virus that causes COVID-19 is not a direct food safety concern, according to updated guidance from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The document replaces interim guidance from the FAO and World Health Organization (WHO) on coronavirus and food safety for food businesses, originally published in April 2020.

Earlier guidelines were criticized by the then-International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) president Roger Cook and others for suggesting SARS-CoV-2 was a food safety issue.

No confirmation of link to food or packaging
Current data indicates that neither food nor food packaging is a pathway for the spread of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food or on surfaces but can in humans and certain animals. Once in the environment, viruses degrade and become less infectious, according to the document.

“It is important to note that, although the detection of virus or viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) remnants on foods and food packaging provides evidence of previous contamination and is not disputed, there is no confirmation of SARS-CoV-2, or any other respiratory illness-causing virus, being transmitted by food or food packaging and causing illnesses in people who touch the contaminated food products or packaging.”

Studies published in journals including China CDC weekly have linked cases of illness to packaging of cold chain products contaminated with the virus.

The guidelines aim to help ensure the integrity of the food chain is maintained and adequate and safe food supplies are available for consumers by not restricting supply chains with ineffective measures.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been linked to workers on farms and processing facilities for meat, poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables, and pet food.

“It remains essential for the food industry and authorities regulating the food industry to protect all workers from person-to-person spread of these viruses by providing a safe work environment, promoting personal hygiene measures and providing training on food hygiene principles,” said Markus Lipp, senior food safety officer.

Trade issues and role of testing
An infected worker can infect co-workers, contaminate the food production and processing environments, and food or food materials that may lead to trade restrictions, even though there is no food safety hazard.

A number of import and export bans were put in place at different points during the pandemic and China tested imports of food and packaging for SARS-CoV-2 on entry to the country.

Microbiological environmental sampling has a role in verifying sanitation protocols but testing for SARS-CoV-2 in processing facilities or on food packaging is costly, time consuming and does not aid risk-based decision-making for consumer protection and is not recommended, said the document.

The virus is susceptible to most commonly used disinfectants and sanitizers used in the food processing environment. WHO recommends sanitizers with greater than 70 percent alcohol with sufficient contact time for decontamination. Common disinfectants with active ingredients based on quaternary ammonium compounds and chlorine also have virucidal properties.

General principles of worker protection and advice for those in primary production, food processing, transport and at retail level such as shops, restaurants and other food outlets is also covered in the guidance.

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