The good news is there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food as a medium. However, other viruses such as norovirus and hepatitis have been noted for their involvement in foodborne infections.
The spread of COVID-19 around the world have highlighted the importance for the food industry to have a contingency plan and/or plans to address emergency situations. Although we are in the midst of COVID-19, Crisis Management Planning still is a valuable tool for reference to handle future communicable disease outbreaks.
The good news is there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food as a medium. However, other viruses such as norovirus and hepatitis have been noted for their involvement in foodborne infections. Table 1 indicated the common foodborne viruses which are known to cause foodborne infections.
More often than they should, food safety professionals neglect virus when doing hazard analysis. A quick review of numbers on CDC Report Global Burden of Norovirus and Prospects for Vaccine Development shows that leaving out virus as part of hazard assessment is a huge mistake. Only Norovirus alone has been estimated to cause approximately 200,000 deaths annually worldwide, with 70,000 or more among children in developing countries (2). Studies in the Netherlands reported the costs of NoV and HAV illnesses in 2012 to be around €106 million and €900,000, respectively (3). Another study in US has estimated a cost of approximately $2 billion per year due to NoV (4) associates with cost of medical treatment, number of work days lost and value of statistical life.
To mitigate the risk of virus contamination, food professionals should understand the following characteristics of the viruses relevant to food to ensure robust control of the viruses. Note that risk mitigation strategies for bacteria and viruses are different.
- Virus does not cause a change in organoleptic characteristics of food products. They will not replicate in food as a virus needs a living cell to do so.
- Most foodborne viruses are persistent in the environment and very stable outside the host (demonstrate resistance to extreme pH, drying and radiation).
- As low as 1 to 100 viral particles are needed to cause infection and produce illness.
Most of the viruses that have been shown to directly affect food supply can be transmitted via person-to-person and person-to-food route. On the contrary, COVID-19 transmits only via person-to-person route. Care and consideration for crisis handling should be identifying and handling the transmission routes specific to the identified communicable disease.
In addition, there are no reliable indicators of the presence of the virus, and the detection of viral nucleic acids do not indicate viral infectivity. The absence of correlation between detecting viral nucleic acid and the likelihood of causing disease is a challenge for virus risk assessment (5).
Requirements for Crisis Management
Crisis management is an essential part of ensuring business continuity and one of the important elements of food safety programs.
GFSI defines Emergency as situation in which the company deviates from standard operating procedures under defined conditions. Inside the benchmarking requirements we can find the emergency situations inside Purchasing and Supplier performance explaining that the procedure for the evaluation of suppliers shall address procurement in emergency situations to ensure that food still conforms with requirements or specifications. This couldn’t be more relevant facing the current pandemic situation where the lack of human resources and/or scarcity of products may lead to a lower level of supplier control.
In this article, we compared the requirements for Crisis Management for four primary Global Food Safety Initiatives’ recognized certification programs: FSSC 22000 Version 5 (clause 8.4 and 9.9 ISO 22000:2018), SQF Version 8.1 (clause 2.15), BRC Issue 8 (clause 3.11) and IFS Food Version 6.1 (clause 5.9).
All the certification programs focused on the situation that can harm or cause food safety risks to the consumer and associate requirements for recall and traceability programs to ensure all products that are affected can be recovered from the market.
A table with a comprehensive list of these documents was also prepared by the authors and will be included in the article’s PDF. See below how you can get each month my articles in PDF.
Regardless of the certification scheme that you are following, it is important to be able to:
- Include Product Recall and Withdrawal as part of the consideration for Crisis Management.
- Run the Crisis Management program at any time (even after office hours).
- Designate two teams: Crisis Management Team and Recall Team.
- The Crisis Management Team focus on handling crisis -risk identification and assessments
- The Recall Team focus on handling product recall and ensuring that the reconciliation of the affected materials and products are adequately performed.
- Run mock crisis emergency at least once annually and mock recall at least twice annually.
- Management for mock crisis emergency should be reviewed for effectiveness, preparedness and any identified opportunities for improvement shall be included as part of an annual review of the Crisis Management Program.
- Maintain updated a Key Contact List for Management, Emergency Services, Suppliers, Customers, Certification Body and Legal/Regulatory.
- Have a communication plan with clear and defined responsibilities regarding who communicates and with whom to communicate.
- FAO/WHO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization]. 2008. Microbiological hazards in fresh leafy vegetables and herbs: Meeting Report. Microbiological Risk Assessment Series No. 14. Rome. 151pp.
- CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015. Global Burden of Norovirus and Prospects for Vaccine Development.
- Mangen, M.J., Bouwknegt, M., Friesema, I.H., Kortbeek, L.M., van Pelt, W., Havelaar, A.H., 2013. Disease Burden and Cost-of-illness of Food-related Pathogens in the Netherlands, 2011, RIVM Report 330331007/2013.
- Hoffmann, S., Batz, M.B., Morris Jr., J.G., 2012. Annual cost of illness and quality-ad- justed life year losses in the United States due to 14 foodborne pathogens. J. Food Prot. 75, 1292–1302.
- Albert Bosch, Elissavet Gkogka, Françoise S. Le Guyader, Fabienne Loisy-Hamon, Alvin Lee, Lilou van Lieshout, Balkumar Marthi, Mette Myrmel, Annette Sansom, Anna Charlotte Schultz, Anett Winkler, Sophie Zuber, Trevor Phister, Foodborne viruses: Detection, risk assessment, and control options in food processing, International Journal of Food Microbiology, Volume 285, 2018, Pages 110-128.
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This article was written with Felicia Loo – Certified Food Scientist
Special thanks to Jocelyn Lee Lion for contributing and editing this article.
Disclaimer: The information contained on this article is based on research done in the last months and the authors personal experience and opinion. It is not intended to represent the view of any organization they work for or collaborate with. The authors will not be held liable for the use or misuse of the information provided in the article.