Questions and Answers on COVID-19 and food safety from the European Commission Health and Food Safety Department
1. RISK OF INFECTION FROM FOOD
1.1. What is the risk of COVID-19 infection from food products?
Despite the large-scale pandemic, there has, to date, been no reported transmission of COVID-19 via the consumption of food. Therefore, as stated by the European Food Safety Authority, there is no evidence that food poses a risk to public health in relation to COVID-19. The main mode of transmission for COVID-19 is considered to be person-to-person, mainly through respiratory droplets that people sneeze, cough or exhale.
1.2. Can I seek guarantees from my suppliers regarding COVID-19?
No. A "virus-free" certification cannot be justified because there is no evidence that food poses a risk to public health in relation to COVID-19. Any request for such guarantees is therefore disproportionate and consequently not acceptable.
1.3. What is the risk of removing COVID-19 from food packaging?
Although according to a recent study the causative agent of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) can persist for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to several days on hard surfaces such as steel and plastic in experimental environments (e.g. controlled relative humidity and temperature), there is no evidence that contaminated packages, exposed to different environmental conditions and temperatures, transmit the infection. To address concerns that the virus present on the skin could potentially be transmitted to the respiratory tract (e.g. by touching the face), persons handling packages, including consumers, should adhere to the guidelines of public health authorities regarding good hygiene practices, including regular and effective hand washing.
2. FOOD PRODUCTION
2.1. Does the food industry take measures to prevent the food they produce or distribute from being contaminated with the virus?
Strict hygiene rules govern all food production in the EU and their implementation is subject to official controls. All food businesses must apply them. The hygiene checks to be carried out by food business operators are intended to prevent contamination of the food by pathogens, and will therefore also aim to prevent contamination of the food by the virus responsible for COVID-19. Regular training of food businesses on all these requirements is mandatory so that people working in the food industry can work in a hygienic way. Good hygiene practices required at all stages of food production include cleaning and, where appropriate, disinfecting food production facilities and equipment between production batches, avoiding cross-contamination between categories of food and food at different stages of the process (e.g. raw versus cooked food), personal hygiene such as hand washing and disinfection, wearing gloves and masks where necessary, using special hygienic clothing and footwear, or staying at home away from work if you feel ill. In addition, in the current context, food businesses should limit their external contacts to what is absolutely necessary, for example with suppliers or trucks, while keeping a distance from the drivers.
2.2. The lock-down may limit controls on the application of hygiene in food businesses. Does this undermine food safety in general?
Although official controls are part of a safe food chain, current restrictions (including the possible risk-based deferral of some official control activities) are not supposed to affect food safety, which relies primarily on the commitment of all actors in the food chain, from farm to fork, with primary responsibility lying with food business operators. Food safety is primarily achieved through preventive measures (good hygiene practices). Food business operators must prove that these preventive measures are always in force during food production and that they are effective by means of controls and tests on their production process and food (so-called own-checks). This is in turn inspected by the food safety authorities. Even if the closure may influence the modalities of official controls, this does not affect the safety of the food produced. In this context, the Commission has adopted a Regulation3 allowing Member States to carry out control actions in a manner compatible with movement restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19, with appropriate safeguards, so as not to compromise food safety. These measures will apply for two months and will then be reviewed on the basis of information from the Member States.
2.3. What happens if a food business employee is infected with COVID-19?
Within the food processing industry, specific protocols have been established to protect the health of workers. These measures are in addition to the usual food hygiene and worker safety practices and adapt to the possibilities on site. Such measures include social distancing during work, plexiglass when distance cannot be maintained, no contact between truck drivers and the food facility, more hand sanitiser available, working in turns to ensure no more workers than strictly necessary are in the facility, or working from home where possible. Under the special recommendations for COVID-19 now in place, anyone with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 is asked to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus. Even in the case that people may be infected when they are not (yet) sick (asymptomatic carriers of the virus), existing legislation minimises the risk of virus particles coming into contact with food, as any person working in a food processing area must maintain a high degree of personal hygiene, including wearing suitable, clean and, where necessary, protective clothing, and must continuously apply good hygiene practices (regular hand washing), not allowing unhygienic behaviour such as sneezing or coughing when producing or handling food, etc.). There is every reason to believe that the existing sanitation measures are as effective for COVID-19 as they are for other microbiological hazards4. In addition, food businesses should take additional sanitary measures where necessary, on a risk basis, especially in the event that an employee tests positive for the virus. These measures, combined with the fact that food is not known to be a source of transmission, provide assurance about the safety of food production.
2.4. There may be shortages of hand disinfectants due to distribution problems. How can this be addressed in a food business?
EU food safety legislation requires all food business operators to ensure that employees take adequate hygiene measures. This includes washing hands regularly with soap. If additional disinfection is required, it should be used as indicated. In the event of a shortage, local food safety authorities will consider such issues on a case-by-case basis and may help businesses to find alternative safe solutions to ensure food safety. These include using alternative products or washing hands with soap more frequently.
2.5. As a food business operator, how do I protect my employees from contamination?
Food business operators should train workers in the correct use of personal protective equipment and remind them of the importance of following instructions on personal hygiene and social distancing during breaks at work.
3. FOOD IN SHOPS
3.1. Can I get contaminated by handling food by people who might be contaminated?
According to food safety authorities in EU Member States, it is very unlikely that you can catch COVID-19 when handling food. In addition, the European Food Safety Authority has stated that there is currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus5. There is currently no information available on whether the virus responsible for COVID-19 can be present on food, survive there and infect humans. At the same time, there is no evidence to date that food has been a source or carrier of infection, while there is no doubt that people who are currently ill have become infected through contact with other infected people. Theoretically, as is the case with any contact surface contaminated by an infected person, be it a door handle or any other surface, food can also lead to indirect contamination by touching it. Therefore, everyone should follow the recommendations of the public health authorities on hand washing. Retailers are aware of hygiene requirements when handling food. Staff who have to handle food (e.g. cutting meat or dairy products, cleaning fish, packing fruit and vegetables) wear gloves and change them often, or otherwise wash their hands frequently. Consumers must also play their part. As a general good hygiene practice, customers in shops should not use different foodstuffs than they intend to buy, in order to avoid contamination with pathogens that may be present on their hands.
3.2. As a retailer, how can I protect myself and my customers from contamination by other people when I visit my shop?
Ensure that hygiene and cleaning routines are up to date and ensure strict compliance, including clear communication on rules of conduct for customer hygiene. Retailers are also recommended to manage the access of external suppliers of products and services (cleaning, etc.). As the virus responsible for COVID-19 is mainly resistant on smooth, inert surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel, retailers are advised to clean these surfaces regularly: for example, shopping trolleys or self-service scanners. Hand baskets in supermarkets should be disinfected regularly. Retailers can also invite customers to bring their own shopping bags. As requested by many authorities, provide a safe physical distance between people as advised by health authorities, for example by marking the floor at certain intervals and limiting the number of people present in your shop at the same time. Retailers can also advise consumers to use shopping trolleys to maintain this distance. Tastings of food for promotional campaigns should be avoided. Where stock permits, retailers may consider providing hand sanitiser or disinfectant wipes at the entrance and/or even single-use gloves6 when people have to touch unpacked food in shops (such as fruit or vegetables). Where retailers do provide sanitary measures, they should insist that customers use them, and in the case of single-use gloves, that they are disposed of properly.
If used correctly, gloves also help protect fruit and vegetables from contamination by customers. In some Member States, the use of disposable gloves in the fruit and vegetable sector at the supermarket has existed for a long time and is supported by customers.
Where personal service is required and where it is not possible to maintain a safe distance between people, it is recommended that a glass or Plexiglas screen be placed between cashiers and customers (e.g. at checkouts), as well as encouraging the use of contactless payment instead of cash. Periodic cleaning of PIN instruments and the conveyor belt in the cash register is recommended.