No matter how much individuals think they know about COVID-19 and food safety, experts agree on one point. No one knows enough.

More than a dozen scientists, government officials and corporate representatives joined forces yesterday for the “COVID-19 & Food Safety Global Summit,” which was organized by the International Association for Food Protection. The three-session web event attracted hundreds of attendees from around the world. Registered attendees will have access to a playback of the webinar and will be notified by email on how to access it.

During Sessions 1 and 3 presenters touched lightly on the knowledge gap involving the coronavirus and food safety. During Session 2 the presenters and moderator gave their full discussion to what we don’t know and what that means.

“. . . The science is moving very quickly,” said Ben Chapman, panelist and professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University. “. . .  We’re kind of making decisions a little bit blind.”

Also on the panel was Lawrence Goodridge, Leung Family Professor in Food Safety, Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety, Director of the Food Safety & Quality Assurance MSc Program, all in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph. Donald Schaffner moderated the panel. He also comes from academia, being distinguished professor and extension specialist at Rutgers University.

Goodridge agreed that knowledge gaps are hampering food safety decisions and plans in regard to COVID-19 mitigation. One thing, Goodridge said, that is not unknown are the hygiene practices and food safety procedures that are already in place. Current best practices are a better jumping off point than a food system with no controls at all.

Chapman and Goodridge also agreed that there is very little in the way of published research on the topic of food safety and the virus. Both acknowledged the current thinking is that the current form of the virus is not foodborne, but both pointed to other ways it is impacting food safety.

Without that research, Chapman said, it is “really hard to make best practices decisions.”

Specific knowledge gaps mentioned by Goodridge included information about different virus strains and different foods, buffet and self-serve situations, and various retail scenarios.

In addition to the nuts and bolts of needed research, the panelists discussed the  need for the focus right now in the food industry to be on worker-to-worker infection control.

“One factor we are trying to address here is worker-to-worker transmission and it’s impact on food safety,” Chapman said.

During the question and answer portion of the session one attendee asked about environmental sampling to determine whether the virus is present in food facilities on hard surfaces or other contact points. Chapman did not hesitate with his answer.

“The early detection system of watching for sick employees (is key). We need to focus on person-to-person transmission, not environmental sampling,” Chapman said.

The summit was partially sponsored by the Seattle law firm Marler Clark LLP. Founding partner Bill Marler is publisher of Food Safety News.

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