The possibility of transmission of COVID-19 via food or beverages, including their packaging: Updated (Seventh version) literature review

5 May 2022

NZFSSRC, in partnership with ESR, has continued to search for any local or international evidence of transmission of COVID-19...

NZFSSRC, in partnership with ESR, has continued to search for any local or international evidence of transmission of COVID-19 through consuming foods or beverages containing virus particles, or from being exposed to the virus on the surface of foods or packaging materials (fomite transmission).  The fast accumulating volume of scientific literature on the virus makes a literature review an increasingly demanding task.

Dr Joanne Kingsbury, ESR, undertook the seventh comprehensive literature review, focusing on these research questions

  1. What is the latest information on the routes of transmission for COVID-19 (including anything that implicates food as a vehicle)?
  2. What is the international consensus on survival rates of SARS-CoV-2 in and on food products and packaging?
  3. What is international best practice for mitigation options to reduce transfer of COVID-19 from workers to food products, including risk management strategies when a worker is identified as being infected with SARS-CoV-2?

Spoiler alert:

The key finding for NZ food and drink manufacturers is that there is still a negligible and unproven risk of contracting the virus by touching contaminated foods, beverages or their packaging, and no evidence that eating or drinking foods and beverages contaminated with the virus has resulted in an infection.

In the summary, Dr Kingsbury says:

“There is still no evidence that food is a source or a transmission route for SARS-CoV-2 despite billions of meals having been consumed since the start of the pandemic, and there is very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.  SARS-CoV-2 can invade cells in the oral cavity, salivary glands and gastrointestinal tract.  However, cooking of food will inactivate SARS-CoV-2.  If transmission were to occur via the foodborne route, it is expected that the infectious dose consumed would need to be significantly higher than the infectious dose for airborne transmission to overcome the inhibitory effects of the stomach acid. 

Significant COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at food processing facilities and among food service workers, but most transmission has not been attributed to the food products or packaging.  Instead, person-to-person transmission exacerbated by a work environment that places workers at increased risk of exposure has been considered the primary cause of outbreaks at these facilities.  There are several reports from Chinese cities where there was a genetic linkage between SARS-CoV-2 found on imported cold-chain products or packaging and from cases that handled them, indicating that fomite transmission (but not foodborne transmission) may have occurred.  However, the direction of the transmission was not demonstrated and alternative transmission routes were also possible.”

The Centre’s vigilance will continue.  Some countries that import our produce are extremely sensitive to any possibility of fomite transmission from imported goods, and we must provide constant assurance of food safety based on the best scientific evidence. 

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