The University of Illinois Extension Service is working to quell fears about the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply by offering updated information on its website.
The Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have no reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest coronavirus can be transmitted by food or food packaging, the extension service explained. Research on similar viruses, such as SARS and influenza, show risk of transmission from food is very low. While information on if or how long virus persists on surfaces is minimal, risk of foodborne transmission is low and should not be of concern.
The service also pointed out that while local stores may not have normal inventory while supply chains adjust, there is no food shortage in the U.S.
COVID-19 is not known to be caused from eating contaminated food, so safety of fresh produce should not be a concern relative to this new virus. Produce has not be identified as a risk factor in the transmission of other respiratory virus outbreaks.
Still, it's a good idea to follow good food safety practices whenever preparing, storing or consuming foods. For example, washing produce before consumption is always a good practice. It shouldn't be cleaned with dish soap or any detergent or treated with chemical disinfectants, however.
Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. It may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching their mouth, eyes or nose, but this is not thought to be the major way the virus is transmitted.
In commercial food production, processing, and preparation, there are many best practices that are routinely followed as per federal, state and local regulations. Regulations are designed to prevent foods from becoming contaminated with microbes from the environment, including viruses.
Businesses should continue to follow recommended procedures to prevent contamination. They need to disinfect high-touch surfaces such as bins, baskets and harvesters on a regular basis. The CDC advises the use of disinfectants on the EPA recommended list found at epa.gov/pesticideregistration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sarscov-2. Bleach may be used to disinfect surfaces after they have been cleaned. The recommended concentration is higher than for everyday sanitation: 5 tablespoons bleach per gallon of water.
Employers need to follow guidelines set by state and local authorities in the case that a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19. They should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure in the workplace but must still adhere to HIPAA guidelines.
Sick employees should follow the CDC recommendations and employers should consult with the local health department for additional guidance.
Workers should not report to work if they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19, or have come in contact with someone who is sick. Anyone displaying symptoms should be asked to leave.
Employees should try to stay six feet apart during work and while on break.
Employers should provide handwashing stations and hand sanitizer. Workers should wash hands and use sanitizer before and after handling produce and packaging. They also should be encourage to use good hygiene practices, like covering mouth and nose with a bent elbow when coughing or sneezing.
Surgical masks are not necessary, as they are not protective to healthy people. They may help prevent ill individuals from shedding virus, but such people should be excluded from the workplace.
The FDA does not anticipate that food products will need to be recalled or be withdrawn from the market because of an employee ill from COVID-19.
For more info, visit: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.