ISMSF Covid-19 report

Report shows COVID-19 transmission via food highly unlikely

A new report published by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF) indicates transmission of COVID-19 via the consumption or handling of food is highly unlikely. One of the authors is SA microbiology titan, Dr Lucia Anelich.

By now, people the world over are aware of the ways they can best keep themselves safe from COVID-19: washing hands, social distancing, wearing a mask. According to a new report published this month by the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF), there is some good news, however, when it comes to COVID-19 transmission: Transmission via the consumption or handling of food is highly unlikely.

“SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] should not be considered a food safety hazard since a true food safety hazard enters the human body with food via the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, where it can infect organs/tissues elsewhere in the human body,” the report reads.

These findings echo similar statements from FDA as early as February declaring the threat of COVID-19 transmission via food unlikely.

“We want to reassure the public that at this time there is no evidence that food or food packaging have been associated with transmission and no reason to be concerned,” FDA said in a statement in February, during the pandemic’s infancy. “Further, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods, including food and drugs for humans and pets.”

The recent report from ICMSF, now more than six months into the pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly one million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University, may serve as a silver lining for a populace that has largely turned to eating and drinking occasions for a sense of normalcy during these decidedly not normal times.

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.”ICMSF report

The report goes on to note that, while there have been some reports of traces of COVID-19 being found on food products, those instances typically fail to identify how the virus was identified, what amount of the virus was present and whether it was viable and infectious at the time.

“Viruses present on food or food packaging will lose viability over time,” the ICMSF report read. “Following a risk-based approach, it is very unlikely that such contamination would result in infection.”

Despite these findings, the ICMSF was also clear in its report that precautions and proper handling procedures are paramount during this time of uncertainty, saying “…it is prudent to emphasize to food producers, manufacturers and handlers the importance of using good food hygiene practices to minimize any possibility of food or food contact surfaces as a vector for SARS-CoV-2.”

The report also noted that, even with these findings, the mere presence of COVID-19 has and can continue to cause a disruption in the food industry — think meat processing plant closures in the US earlier in the year. As always, proper planning and an overabundance of caution are prudent to continue to control the spread of the disease as the country and world at large seek a return to normalcy.

Comment from Dr Lucia Anelich:

As the only South African member of the ICMSF, I am particularly proud to have been one of several authors of this comprehensive position paper on SARS-CoV-2 and food safety. It was an idea I mooted about 6 weeks ago, which my colleagues agreed with wholeheartedly.  I felt it important that an authoritative body on food safety such as the ICMSF, should prepare such an important opinion piece.

It has been sent to a number of international food safety agencies, all appreciating and agreeing with the stance we took and the advice we provided. Many have sent it on to other agencies and tweeted it, Facebooked it etc further.  

You can find it on my website for downloading.  It is naturally also available on the ICMSF website.