The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published research on the time the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on food and packaging.

The University of Southampton produced the report under contract by the FSA. Researchers measured the rate of inactivation of the virus on the surface of various types of food and food packaging. Only one COVID strain was studied.

A risk assessment from the FSA in 2020 found it was very unlikely to be infected via food. Results from the study will not change the advice that there is no need to take added precautions because of COVID-19 when handling food and packaging as long as good hygienic practices are followed.

Findings support views from the International Commission for Microbiological Specifications of Foods (ICMSF) in 2020 that SARS-CoV-2 should not be considered a food safety hazard and guidance from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2021.

SARS-CoV-2 is thought to be transmissible by touching contaminated surfaces and then the face. It is assumed the main route of transfer to foods and packaging is cross-contamination from infected individuals.

The risk from coronavirus via food is low
“This research gives us additional insight into the stability of coronavirus on the surfaces of a variety of foods and confirms that assumptions we made in the early stages of the pandemic were appropriate and that the probability that you can catch COVID via food is very low,” said Anthony Wilson, microbiological risk assessment team leader, at the FSA.

The laboratory-based study artificially contaminated infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus onto the surfaces of foods and packaging. Scientists measured how the amount of infectious virus declined over time, at a range of temperatures and humidity levels, reflecting typical storage conditions.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus was added to foods and packaging at a volume that represents respiratory droplets landing on their surfaces. Infectious virus was recovered from foods by the method that gave the highest recovery of the three ways tested.

Results showed that virus survival varied depending on the foods and packaging examined. For most foods, there was a significant drop in levels of virus contamination in the first 24 hours.

The team tested broccoli, peppers, apple, raspberry, cheddar cheese, sliced ham, olives, brine from the olives, white and brown bread crusts, croissants, and pain au chocolat. Packaging materials were polyethylene terephthalate (PET) trays and bottles; aluminum cans and composite drinks cartons. 

Different results based on food and packaging type
In some cases, infectious virus was detected for several hours or days, under certain conditions tested. For cheddar cheese and sliced ham, stored in refrigerated conditions and a range of relative humidity, virus levels remained high up to a week later, when testing was stopped.

When apples and olives were tested, the virus was at the limit of detection very quickly, within an hour, when the first time point was measured. The rate of viral decrease was rapid, within a few hours, for croissants and pain au chocolat. For all packaging, there was a significant drop in levels of contamination in the first 24 hours.

Findings showing the long survival time of SARS-CoV-2 on ham and cheese highlight the importance of proper food handling to prevent contamination prior to consumption said, researchers.

“The potential implications for public health are unclear since inhalation of respiratory aerosols and droplets is considered to be the main route of SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” they added.

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