In January 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease in Hubei Province, China a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. WHO stated there is a high risk of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreading to other countries around the world.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that usually cause respiratory illness. They include viruses that cause the common cold and seasonal flu, as well as more serious illnesses like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
COVID-19 is a new strain that has not previously been identified in humans and was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
Signs of infection include high fever (>38ºC) together with one or more respiratory symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Severe symptoms include pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome and kidney failure.
Bangladesh remains at high risk of the coronavirus spread as officials said that Bangladesh's connectivity with the countries where regular incidences of the novel virus occurred left it to the chance of virus infection anytime.
The USA and China have voiced concerns over Bangladesh as it was at high risk of coronavirus spread, which has so far affected more than 140 countries, killing around 6,000 people globally and infecting over 160,000 people.
Can coronavirus be transmitted through food?
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, people are increasingly wondering how COVID-19 might affect our food supply and eating habits. However, as of now, there's no evidence of COVID-19 transmission through food.
Coronaviruses need a host (animal or human) to grow in and cannot grow in food. Thorough cooking is expected to kill the virus because we know that a heat treatment of at least 30 min at 60ºC is effective with SARS.
"We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging," said a spokesperson of United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Food Safety and Inspection Service.
A professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University explained that because the mode of infection is primarily respiratory, the chance of getting COVID-19 from food is extremely low. In fact, there is no evidence so far of any respiratory viruses being transmitted through food.
Since there is no known transmission of COVID-19 through food, you don't need to worry about avoiding any foods in particular. A bigger anxiety when shopping is the risk of coronavirus transmission from person to person.
Although coronaviruses are not frequent causes of food-borne disease, other viruses such as hepatitis A and norovirus have been associated with numerous food-borne disease outbreaks over the years. Food handlers have been the source of contamination in several of these outbreaks. This can be due to direct handling of the food or to contamination of a food contact surface, leading to a secondary source of contamination.
How is COVID-19 passed on?
Coronaviruses are most commonly passed between animals and people and from person to person. The source of COVID-19 is believed to be animals, but the exact source is not yet known.
The virus is commonly passed on:
* directly, through contact with an infected person's body fluids (for example, droplets from coughing or sneezing)
* indirectly, through contact with surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on
Current information suggests that the virus may survive a few hours on surfaces. Simple household disinfectants can kill it. Investigations in China are continuing to identify the source of the outbreak and ways it can be passed on to people. Virus particles can often persist for extended periods of time on surfaces, so it is important to decontaminate food contact surfaces in case there has been any contact with an infected individual. Although research has found that it is difficult to inactivate enteric viruses using common surface disinfectants, research also has shown that common household disinfectants are sufficient to eliminate a coronavirus surrogate, MERS.
Is it safe to eat in restaurants?
In most cases, there is no reason to avoid visiting a restaurant due to fears of COVID-19 transmission. If the coronavirus is present in your food, it will be destroyed with proper cooking. But as with going to the supermarket, you will want to be diligent about taking precautions similar to those recommended to prevent the spread of seasonal flu. The respiratory virus risk in restaurants is really more about being in the same location as a lot of people, some of who can be depositing the virus on surfaces like tables, doors, utensils. It can be managed by following proper hand washing procedure and uses of alcohol-based sanitiser which will be an effective step to reduce risks of both COVID-19 and Influenza.
Are there any precautions to take when preparing food at home?
The biggest advices to keep in mind when cooking at home are to wash your hands as much as possible and don't prepare food for others if you're showing symptoms. When handling or preparing food, it is recommended to follow the standard food safety practices, like washing hands and surfaces often, separating raw meat from other foods, refrigerating food, and cooking food to the appropriate temperature.
What can food business operators do?
Food business operators (FBOs) have particular responsibilities to follow the Food Safety (Food Hygiene) Regulation, 2018 of Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) or you can follow the "WHO guidance on getting your workplace ready for COVID-19"
Personal hygiene by food handlers and assiduous sanitation of food handling and serving services are both critically important for all food-related establishments. Sick personnel should never be allowed in food handling areas.
FBOs have an important role to play in preventing food-borne illness. They should:
* ensure that staff are aware of the COVID-19 situation
* ensure that staff are trained appropriately in food hygiene
* ensure effective supervision of staff to reinforce hygienic practices
* provide the correct facilities e.g. hand washing, toilets, to enable staff to practice good hygiene
* ensure staff and contractors report any physical signs/symptoms, before commencing work or while in the workplace.
* keep vigilant and ensure that staff are not ill and are fit to work
Any well-run food processing facility or foodservice establishment already has these procedures in place under current Good Manufacturing Practices, food safety management plans (such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control plans and employee training programmes. These measures should be sufficient to control the transmission of coronavirus from employees.
(The writer acknowledges with gratitude the different sources of information.)
Syed Moazzem Hossain is Food Safety Specialist at USAID- Bangladesh Improving Trade and Business Enabling Environment (FtFBITBEE), International Development Group LLC