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Coronavirus and Our Food: Should We Be Scared?

Food Regulations and Policy, Food Safety

Coronavirus and Our Food: Should We Be Scared?

The Dirt

Every day seems to bring dire news about the increasing spread of a terrible new strain of virus – known as coronavirus COVID-19. As this virus spreads globally, how concerned should we be for our safety? And should we fear transmission of the virus via our food, especially among imported products? Based on what we now know, the answer is “no.”

From its emergence in the food market of Wuhan, China, near the beginning of 2020, the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus has infected more than 60,000 individuals and caused 1,300 deaths, with about 90% of cases in China. However, it is estimated that the actual numbers are much higher. The rest of the world is nervously monitoring its spread, while the global medical community is working frantically to find both a treatment and a vaccine.

As medical professionals find the answers they seek, Dirt-to-Dinner takes a look at what we already know about the coronavirus. What risks do Americans face? And what does the consumer need to know about the potential risks of going about daily life? Is our food safe? The answers we’ve found tell us to be careful – but not to panic when it comes to our food supply.

What is Coronavirus COVID-19?

COVID-19, formerly referred to as 2019-nCoV, is a strain of the coronavirus family of viruses, which are common in many species of animals. These viruses typically do not spread from animals to humans, but when they do, the human body normally can overcome the virus. Health experts note that coronaviruses are – and have been – common through the global population. But when a virulent variant strain emerges and becomes “zoonotic,” meaning capable of being transmitted from animals to humans – the effects may take a dangerous and deadly turn.

Health officials point to past experience with other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which first appeared in China in November 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which first appeared in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), SARS eventually killed about 778 people worldwide, and MERS another 478. The number of humans infected with – and dying from – COVID-19 already exceeds the totals for each of those viruses.

Coronaviruses attack the respiratory systems of humans and animals, often first appearing as a common cold, or the flu, or an upper respiratory infection. Coughing, sneezing, sore throat, runny nose and sometimes a fever are common symptoms. The cause of the condition may easily be confused with other common sources of respiratory infection, such as rhinovirus – the virus that causes the common cold – making initial diagnosis difficult. It often becomes deadly when it spreads to the lower respiratory system, causing pneumonia or, in some cases, severe oxygen deficiency or renal failure.

COVID-19’s Migration

This particular coronavirus is believed to have originated from snakes, or perhaps bats. The Wuhan market where the virus is believed to have originated sells a variety of products, including seafood and raw and cooked meats, but not necessarily bats or snakes. The exact source is still under investigation.

Latest statistics about this coronavirus indicate it has spread to approximately 30 countries, including roughly a dozen cases (and one fatality) in the United States. Because someone can carry it and contaminate others for two weeks before showing symptoms, this is a significant concern of global governments and health organizations, despite aggressive efforts to contain the spread.

The World Health Organization (WHO) observes that of the known cases of COVID-19 infection, 82% are classified as “mild,” 15% “severe” and 3% as “critical.” Initial reports estimated the fatality rate of COVID-19 at about 2% – lower than the mortality rate for SARS and MERS. But the rapid and far-reaching spread of the infection makes the death total from COVID-19 higher. Health officials continue to monitor the disease to refine the mortality measure, while the actual death toll in China remains unclear.

“This is a significant global situation, but I want to emphasize at this time that the risk to the American public is low.”

– Robert Redfield, M.D., Director, Center for Disease Control

How does coronavirus spread?

Health officials admit they have much to learn about how coronavirus COVID-19 spreads. But based upon experience with other viruses, some basic facts are known.

First and foremost, this virus is spread through direct contact with an infected person, and most often through the respiratory system. Much like the flu or a bad cold, people are contaminated by “respiratory droplets” – a polite term for being sneezed or coughed on, or being in close enough proximity to inhale the virus. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that the virus is spread by “close contact” with an infected person – meaning “about six feet.”

Some health officials also warn against touching your eyes, nose or other mucous surfaces if your hands have been contaminated by droplets.

While the transmission mechanism may seem straightforward enough, it’s not always easy to spot who may be carrying the virus – and who may simply have a cold or flu. While medical experts dive deeper into transmission factors and other aspects of COVID-19, the safest course would seem to be to avoid close contact with anyone showing signs of a respiratory condition or problem. And definitely don’t shake the hand of an infected person and then touch any of your own mucous surfaces.

Is my food safe?

Health experts generally say they have no evidence of the virus being transmitted by non-contact routes, such as from objects – or food.

These authorities note that it is theoretically possible to transmit the virus from a contaminated surface, such as a package or other object, if that object had been contaminated through direct contact with an infected person who had sneezed on or otherwise deposited droplets on the surface. But the virus is not believed to survive long enough in these “smear situations” to make it a serious threat. Certainly, goods shipped from areas where the disease is known to exist – such as China – would take more than enough time in transit to make transmission unlikely.

U.S. total imports of agricultural products from China, our 3rd largest supplier of agricultural imports, totaled $4.9 billion in 2018.

Leading categories include:

  • processed fruit & vegetables ($1.2 billion)
  • fruit & vegetable juices ($393 million)
  • snack foods ($222 million)
  • spices ($167 million)
  • fresh vegetables ($160 million).

– Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

The German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture looked into the specific issue of food contamination and reported no evidence of humans being infected from handling or consumption of food. Regarding the risks from “smear contaminations,” the Ministry reported, “this is likely to occur during a short period after contamination, due to a relatively low stability of coronavirus in the environment.” Infection from foods exported from China, the Ministry concluded, is “unlikely.” The Minnesota Department of Health examined the same issue and concluded that “the coronavirus can only survive on inanimate objects for a few hours, maybe a day or two in perfect laboratory conditions.”

Furthermore, experts also note that coronaviruses are sensitive to heat. Cooking our food is a simple, practical form of insurance, if any doubts remain after hearing from health experts on the low level of danger to our food supply from this virus. But if you see someone cough or sneeze on your food as it arrives to your table at a restaurant, don’t be afraid to send it back!

What happens next?

While the dangers of coronavirus COVID-19 are undoubtedly real and significant to people everywhere, health experts point to a number of reasons to avoid panic.

First, there is widespread agreement among the global community for a collaborative effort to contain spread of the virus, primarily through careful control of travel from where the virus is known to exist.

Also, information about the virus is being aggressively shared across the world. One of the best tools to combat the virus is a better understanding of what to look for to spot the disease, and how to avoid risk of contamination.

And just as important, there is a concerted effort among the scientific, academic, governmental and health communities to pool knowledge and resources to combat the problem. While there is much to learn about COVID-19, painful experience with pernicious coronaviruses has helped us learn a great deal to execute an effective response. As much work as remains to be done in developing comprehensive treatment regimens and potential vaccines, we’re not starting from ground zero.

What should I do?

As work continues to combat coronavirus, there are steps each of us can take to do our part in defeating it.

Practice simple but effective basic health routines.

  • Avoid crowded areas and situations where exposure to viruses is likely or possible
  • If such contacts are unavoidable, consider wearing a protective mask
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your nose, mouth or mucous surfaces
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • If you feel ill or show signs of a respiratory illness, stay home or avoid crowded situations
  • If in doubt, consult your health care provider

Travel smart.

  • Seriously reconsider travel to known areas of infection. If you do go to such places, be ready for possible quarantine or severe restrictions on your movement and activities. And cooperate fully with health officials.
  • Avoid close personal contact, and consider wearing a protective mask
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Seek medical care at the first sign of any respiratory problems

Don’t be afraid of your food.

  • Continue to eat the foods you enjoy – and enjoy the foods you eat!
  • Wash and cook your food as you always do
  • Maintain a healthy diet to keep your immune system strong

The Bottom Line

Health officials around the world agree to be cautious of those possibly infected with coronavirus, but there's no need to panic when it comes to our food supply. This virus is spread through direct contact with an infected person, mostly via coughing and sneezing. But as for our food, whether local or imported, there is currently no evidence of the virus being transmitted in this manner.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line