The European Food Safety Authority is closely monitoring the scientific literature in relation to the possible role of food in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the disease COVID-19 or coronavirus disease) to humans.
As already flagged in previous opinions, there is, up to now, no evidence that food is a source or transmission route of SARS-CoV-2.
It cannot be excluded that a person could become infected after touching a surface or object, including food or food packaging, contaminated by SARS-CoV-2 and transferring the virus to mucous membranes of the nose, eyes or mouth. However, there is no conclusive evidence for this form of transmission.
A report compiled by EFSA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) recommends that early detection of SARS-CoV-2 should be a priority for monitoring activities at mink farms in the European Union. The report proposes options for monitoring strategies that will help to prevent and control spread of the disease.
It concludes that all mink farms should be considered at risk from SARS-CoV-2 and that monitoring should include active measures such as testing of animals and staff in addition to passive surveillance by farmers and veterinarians.
EFSA’s animal health specialists contribute to a rapid assessment of the risks to human health from the new SARS-CoV-2 variants related to mink. The assessment contains several recommendations aimed at protecting public health.
In relation to the human-animal SARS-CoV-2 interface, EFSA has worked with ECDC on the assessment of risks to human health from coronavirus related to mink. The assessments were carried out after Denmark reported cases of humans infected with SARS-CoV-2 variants related to mink. The virus was subsequently detected at mink farms in several countries in the EU/EEA.
There is no scientific evidence of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through handling or consumption of food and, as such, EFSA has not carried out any specific food safety assessments. EFSA is constantly monitoring the scientific literature for new and relevant information on this matter.
These FAQ focus on SARS-CoV-2 and food.
Is consumption of food a transmission route of SARS-CoV-2?
There is no evidence that food poses a risk to public health in relation to SARS-CoV-2. The major transmission pathway for SARS-CoV-2 is from person to person, mainly via respiratory droplets that infected people sneeze, cough, or exhale (respiratory route).
Foodborne viruses are viruses infecting humans via food consumption and drinking water. There is some evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect intestinal cells (see specific question below), but there is no evidence that points to SARS-CoV-2 as a foodborne virus or of any type of food being the source of a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
In the scientific advice produced by the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES), it is underlined that there is no evidence that contaminated food can lead to infection of the digestive tract although the possibility of the respiratory tract becoming infected during chewing cannot be completely ruled out.
Can food be contaminated with SARS-CoV-2?
When good hygiene practices are not properly followed during the handling and preparation of food, the surface of food might become contaminated – for example, by infectious droplets being released by an infected person (e.g. via coughing, sneezing, speaking loudly) or by the food being touched with contaminated hands. Contamination can occur on food and surfaces used for food preparation (e.g. cutting boards) in the same way as for any other object and surface.
Does the virus survive on food?
Viruses cannot multiply in foods, but in certain conditions they can survive on foods.
Does the virus survive in food during cold storage and freezing?
Laboratory studies showed that SARS-CoV-2 remained stable at 4°C on a variety of surfaces for several days and some positive samples have been detected from refrigerated facilities and cold-chain food or its packaging. This suggests that SARS-CoV-2 could persist on contaminated refrigerated or frozen products. However, no link has been established between SARS-CoV-2 infection and food consumption.
Does the virus survive in food during cooking?
Cooking at sufficiently high temperatures along with the application of good hygiene practices protects consumers against a wide range of foodborne infections and also inactivates SARS-CoV-2 if it were present on food. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends cooking food thoroughly, especially meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood and bringing foods such as soups and stews to boiling point to make sure that they reach 70°C.
Does the virus survive on food packaging and other surfaces?
Scientific evidence shows that coronaviruses can persist in the environment and on different types of surfaces that might be in contact with food. Research has shown persistence on steel up to seven days and on plastic and glass for up to four days. Other surfaces have also been investigated e.g. copper, aluminium, paper, cardboard, wood, and rubber.
On the other hand, coronaviruses are susceptible to, and inactivated by, certain biocidal agents. For example, disinfection procedures applying 62–71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogenperoxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite for one minute exposure time are considered effective to inactivate coronaviruses.
Persistence on food packaging or other materials does not imply that these materials are a source of infection. Currently there is no evidence of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through food packaging or other materials.
Can SARS-CoV-2 establish intestinal infection and subsequently cause infection through the oral transmission route?
There is experimental evidence of the establishment of human intestinal infection with SARS-CoV-2, however there are many knowledge gaps, and direct evidence for the involvement of the gastro-intestinal tract in the pathogenesis of COVID-19 is insufﬁcient. Recent in vitro studies (using cell cultures, and organoids) have shown the possibility of intestinal infection by SARS-CoV-2. However, the use of in vivo animal models (including non-human primates) has resulted in some conflicting evidence.
For example, in one study macaques exposed to SARS-CoV-2 via the intragastric route did not show evidence of infection, while in a second recent study intragastric inoculation led to the detection of viral RNA and/or infectious viruses in many tissues and gastroenteric contents. Limitations remain on the direct applicability to humans of the results of these experiments.
In summary, although infection with SARS-CoV-2 through the oral route in humans cannot be totally excluded from a theoretical point of view, many scientific uncertainties remain and much more robust evidence is needed before drawing firm conclusions. This evidence relates in particular to the proportion of patients who have infectious particles in their faeces; the amount of viral particles that may be present in patients’ faeces; how the virus behaves when it is exposed to a human’s gastric and intestinal environment; and the amount of virus needed to cause infection in humans.
What can food business operators do to protect consumers during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic?
Food business operators should scrupulously apply the same principles and procedures which are already in place in the EU for ensuring safe food production. In fact, healthy workers and compliance with good hygiene practices during all stages of the production, processing and manipulation of food are key to protecting against all microbiological agents causing foodborne infections.