COVID-19 not a food safety issue; food supply is sufficient
Cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise, and though spread of the disease has prompted some personnel and operations adjustments at food processing plants across the U.S., the disease is not transmitted through food consumption. What’s more, federal agencies say the food supply is sufficient.
“The risk of contracting [COVID-19] through fresh or prepared food is low to none when following proper food safety and public health practices,” wrote Dr. Sarah Ison in a Focus on Ag column published by the American Farm Bureau Federation. “If we look at past data and investigations of previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as MERS and SARS, the World Health Organization determined that there was no disease transmission through food.”
Ison emphasized the importance of at-home food safety practices, encouraging consumers to rinse produce immediately prior to eating or cooking and wash their hands properly prior to preparing or eating food. Also, families and business alike must continue to sanitize high-contact surfaces, such as handles, doorknobs and counters, to reduce the risk of exposure.
“Keeping your hands clean in the kitchen is the most important step you can take to stop the spread of germs and COVID-19,” Ison wrote.
Food supply concerns have bloomed as a result of consumers’ recent experiences encountering empty shelves at the grocery store, as well as news that some food processing companies have shut down plants or reduced the number of employees.
USDA Chief Economist Robert Johansson, citing statistics from the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE), wrote on April 16 that U.S. food supply continues to be more than adequate, though it may take time to redirect stocks intended for restaurants into retail outlets.
“Currently, the outlook for domestic production of agricultural commodities, including cereals, meat and dairy is very good. We have sufficient quantities to not only feed our country but maintain robust exports even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Johansson wrote.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannis wrote on April 2 that because COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness, the agency does not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or withdrawn from the market for reasons related to the outbreak, even if a person who works in a human or animal food facility is confirmed to be positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Yiannis attributed the empty grocery shelves to shifting demand in March as the number of U.S. cases began to escalate. The public responded by stocking up supplies of food at home and curtailing dining at restaurants. Restaurants then drastically reduced wholesale food orders, negating the need for processors’ wholesale stocks, which are produced in different portions and packaged differently for restaurant use than they are for end-consumer use.
The FDA has issued temporary guidance to provide flexibility in packaging and labeling requirements to support food supply chains and get foods to the consumer retail marketplace.