Following the outbreak of the respiratory disease COVID-19 caused by an infection with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), food production and trade have been facing new challenges for a few weeks now that have never been seen before. In a recent statement, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) points out that there is no need for experimenters to comply with special hygiene regulations when handling food (and also other goods) that go beyond the general requirements.
However, the statements contain information concerning hygiene management in food companies. Trade and production must prepare themselves for the fact that they will not only have to spend their days maintaining supply and supply chains and expanding production capacities but will also be faced with new food hygiene requirements. In individual cases, hygiene measures will probably have to be adapted again and again, and the more knowledge researchers have about the coronavirus. We are clarifying which rules are already necessary.
SO FAR NO EVIDENCE OF CORONA TRANSFERABILITY VIA FOOD
In one respect there is good news, according to the BfR’s catalogue of questions and answers last updated on 30 March 2020, there is no evidence so far that the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoC-2) is transmissible via food. The institute bases its statement on current investigations of the Universities of Greifswald and Bochum, which consider transmissibility of the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) via food unlikely.
The BfR (and also the EFSA) update their answers regularly, food producers and retailers should constantly monitor this to be able to react immediately to changes at any time.
The results of the BfR at a glance:
- The exact transmission pathways of the coronavirus have not yet been comprehensively researched, but conclusions can be drawn from results on related coronaviruses.
- The main transmission route is droplet infection, i.e. transmission via the air.
- The respiratory pathogen can also reach the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes or mouth by smear infection, i.e. via the hands.
- Transmission via contaminated surfaces by smear infection is considered possible, but only for a short period after contamination.
- Initial laboratory tests have shown that, after heavy contamination, plastic and stainless steel, for example, remain infectious longer than cardboard.
- So far, there are no proven cases where a person has become infected through the consumption of food.
- Heating food additionally reduces the risk of infection.
- According to current knowledge, it is not likely that imported food is a source of infection with the new coronavirus.
- When handling food, general hygiene rules, such as regular hand washing and proper cleaning of fruit and vegetables, should continue to be observed.
Although the statements of the BfR are not legally binding, they are regularly of great importance in practice. Their statements serve many authorities as necessary decision-making aids for quality and hygiene measures.
Up to now, the information provided by the BfR has only been provisional due to the limited knowledge available to date. Anyone hoping for more help from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will find the same answers. The European authority shares the opinion of its German colleagues.
ADAPTABTABILITY IS REQUIRED IN HYGIENE LAW
Even if, in “normal times”, food producers and traders may feel that food hygiene legislation only defines rigid hygiene standards, they should know that it provides for obligatory adjustments of hygiene measures to current sources or situations of danger in individual cases.
This is made clear in the annexe to the EU Food Hygiene Regulation (Regulation (EC) No 852/2004), which contains a catalogue of mandatory measures. It states, for example, that in companies that work with food, everything must be set up in such a way as to prevent aerogenic contamination, i.e. the transmission of pathogens via the air. With the corona crisis, the focus has shifted even more sharply to the measures required to avoid contamination, so that adjustments have to be made in individual cases.
Hygiene law also contains numerous undefined legal terms. For example, food business operators are required to design their hygiene measures in such a way that the objectives of the Regulation are achieved, often using the terms “good food hygiene” and “good hygiene practice”.
One may now wonder why the rules and terms are so vaguely formulated: Their vagueness or the fact that they are open to interpretation makes it possible for authorities and courts to demand measures adapted to current circumstances. Conversely, for food businesses, this means that they must review their hygiene precautions accordingly and adapt them if necessary.
The provisions of hygiene law are at all times based on the latest scientific findings. For this reason, food companies must react dynamically to the current situation and act in individual cases to maintain food safety and protect employees and customers.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FOOD PRODUCTION
It is noticeable that the statements of the BfR do not, in principle, make any increased demands on hygiene in food production. Instead, it is pointed out that the necessary and sensible hygiene measures and standards, which are also needed and practical in regular operation, should be observed.
If an employee falls ill with COVID-19, the general guidelines of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and the health authorities should be followed to keep the risk of infection for the entire workforce as low as possible.
On the question of whether the food to be processed also serves as a transmission route for the virus and is, therefore, itself unsafe and not marketable, the BfR does not provide any conclusive evidence: In general, the probability of such a transmission path is considered “entertaining” in the form of a smear infection. How long the risk exists depends on the individual case. Product and packaging peculiarities must be taken into account. For example, chilled food has a higher risk than heated food, and as already mentioned, carton packaging is less infectious than plastic for a shorter time.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FOOD TRADE
Already in the last few days, the food retailers have taken protective measures for its employees, but also for its customers. These include covers in the checkout area, gloves, disinfectants and protective masks, restrictions on the number of customers in the stores, the avoidance of packaging materials brought in by customers, compulsory use of shopping trolleys in supermarkets and distance markings in the checkout area. The aim is to prevent the virus from being transmitted from person to person in confined spaces.
If an infection of individual employees occurs, the protective measures specified by the health authorities and RKI must be taken here as well. Besides, in individual cases, it must be checked by applying the criteria mentioned above whether an infection affects the safety of the food. Some supermarkets, for example, have taken the precaution of abandoning self-service baked goods sales in Corona times.
IT DEPENDS ON THE INDIVIDUAL CASE
Since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, hamster purchases and more demanding delivery conditions have posed new challenges for food production and trade daily. Added to this is the need to protect employees and customers from the virus. Up to now, the BfR has recommended to follow the guidelines of the health authorities and the RKI and to comply with the hygiene regulations for food production and trade, which are also appropriate and sensible in “normal times”. At the same time, it is pointed out that companies should monitor the current situation and be prepared to adapt their food hygiene requirements in the light of new findings.