Update on COVID-19: How North American F&B Manufacturers Can Prepare for the Coronavirus

Ann Grace
Contributing Writer

As the coronavirus continues to make headlines worldwide, North American food and beverage manufacturers must prepare for its potential impact. This isn’t the first coronavirus we’ve seen; SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012 have also been considered coronavirus outbreaks. These illnesses are found naturally in both humans and animals. COVID-19, however, is considered a new (also referred to as “novel”) coronavirus and was first discovered in late fall of 2019 in Wuhan, China.

Defining the Terms: Coronavirus vs. COVID-19 vs. SARS-CoV-2

The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that cause a variety of respiratory illnesses and includes SARS; it is not limited to the outbreak we are seeing at the time of this writing.

COVID-19 is an acronym for “coronavirus disease 2019.” COVID-19 can be used interchangeably with “the coronavirus disease.” Neither "COVID-19" nor "the coronavirus" is the pathogen that causes the disease. 

What Germ Causes The Coronavirus?

SARS-CoV-2, or “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” is the name of the virus that causes the coronavirus disease. The ICTV (International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses) named this virus in mid-February, 2020.

The coronavirus is characterized by respiratory illness and fever. Like influenza, it can be passed via respiratory droplets and human-to-human contact. Severe symptoms, seen in roughly 20% of patients, may include an acute respiratory infection, pneumonia, kidney failure, and diarrhea. Currently, the mortality rate for the virus is about 2%. While this may not seem high, it does raise concerns when compared to the 0.1% mortality rate of the seasonal flu.

One of the challenges presented by the coronavirus is its long incubation period (the time between exposure and the onset of symptoms). Research suggests this period could span two to 14 days, and people who bear no symptoms can still spread the virus. These features have made the virus difficult to contain.

At the time of the last update to this page on March 10, 2020, there were 1135 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. We’ll likely see further evidence of transmission throughout our communities, which is why it’s important for restaurants and food manufacturing facilities to do their part to prevent its spread.

Keeping Things in Perspective

While it's true we have a developing situation with many uncertainties, it's very important for us all to recognize the following facts:

  • The United States (and Canada, too) have very few total cases per capita compared to many countries which are being hard hit

  • The SARS-CoV-2 virus does not seem to be spreading very quickly in pediatric populations nor among pregnant women

  • We have good general knowledge about how to protect ourselves against SARS-CoV-2 including an awareness of which disinfectants are efficacious

How Long Does the Coronavirus Survive? How Can I Kill It?

One of the challenges presented by the coronavirus is its long incubation period (the time between exposure and the onset of symptoms). Research suggests this period could span two to 14 days, and people who bear no symptoms can still spread the virus. These features have made the virus difficult to contain.

It is possible COVID-19 could survive up to nine days on surfaces — its survivability could be shorter, but this conservative estimate is based on the lifespan of SARS and what few empirical studies exist at the date of this publication. We do know that regular sanitizers, including bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and alcohol, are effective for eliminating the virus. Using the correct concentrations of these common household disinfectants have proven effective in killing the Coronavirus at home and in the workplace.

The Risk of Transmission Through Food

On February 27, 2020, the FDA released a statement indicating that there were no reports to suggest that COVID-19 could be transmitted by food or food packaging. Yet, they also recommended good hygiene practices for handling and preparing foods. Moreover, according to Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases and vice chairman of the department of medicine at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, MA, notes that COVID-19 and other coronaviruses have been detected in patients’ stool. Thus, the possibility of food handlers transmitting the virus could not be ruled out entirely. He notes, however, that cooking food would likely kill the virus. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) states that heating food for at least 30 minutes at least 140°F has proven to be effective for eliminating SARS. Without a host (animal or human), the virus cannot grow, and therefore cannot proliferate in food sources. 

Nonetheless, FSAI also notes that indirect transmission through contact with surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on is possible. Thus, just as with the flu, infected food handlers could still potentially pass the illness on. As of now, it appears that while transmission through food is unlikely, it cannot be ruled out as impossible.

Moreover, restaurants and food manufacturing facilities should be mindful of the probability that the virus could be passed between colleagues. Early into the SARS outbreak in 2002, restaurant chefs in the Foshan municipality in the Guangdong Province of China infected their colleagues and health care workers, but did not appear to infect any patrons.

7 Things Food & Beverage Manufacturers Can Do About the Coronavirus

  • Work with your supply chain. Know where your raw materials come from, and identify alternate suppliers in different regions for key ingredients if needed.

  • Enforce good hand-washing and hand hygiene. Minimize the risk of spread in facilities and restaurants by encouraging employees to wash hands after changing tasks or touching their face. Have all hand-washing supplies in place, along with hand sanitizing stations with 60% alcohol-based sanitizers. Washing hands thoroughly for 20 seconds and following up with this type of sanitizer can help to prevent contamination.

  • Have an employee illness reporting system in place. Alert employees of which symptoms to look for, and encourage them to stay home if they’re feeling ill. Employees with a fever of 100.4 or higher and acute respiratory symptoms should not be working. Keep in mind that wearing surgical facemasks is not recommended by the CDC for healthy individuals, as there is limited evidence of efficacy.

  • Clean and sanitize. If someone does become ill at work, use bleach or alcohol to wipe down surfaces. The following cleaning agents can be left on commonly used or handled surfaces (such as countertops, workspaces, and doorknobs) for a period of one minute to kill any viruses:

  1. 62-71% ethanol

  2. 0.5% hydrogen peroxide

  3. 0.1% sodium hypochlorite (1:50 standard bleach solution)

  • Encourage employees to get the flu vaccine if they haven’t already. While this won’t protect against COVID-19, it will help to promote a healthier workforce and reduce the strain on the medical community.

  • Consider your workforce planning. If absences occur, do you have employees who are cross-trained to fill critical roles?

  • Reach out to local and state health departments. Ask them which steps should be taken if a case were identified in your workforce.

Currently, it is safe to receive packages from areas that have experienced outbreaks, including China, as the survivability period on surfaces is nine days and transit generally takes longer than that. However, if we start to see more widespread community outbreaks in the U.S., food companies may need to begin considering sanitization steps for incoming products. Reach out to suppliers to see what they’re doing to prepare. Keep in mind that while we have strong health surveillance systems in the U.S., other areas may not have the same practices in place.

Fortunately, the risk of transmission through food remains very low; the coronavirus has a greater person-to-person risk. Workers in restaurant settings should thus be particularly careful about preventing any spread of illness. In general, however, we don’t think of spreading the virus in the same way we think about microbial contaminants, such as E. coli and salmonella. Instead, the virus is similar to influenza in that employee health and hygiene remain important for controlling its spread.

How SafetyChain Can Help Food Companies Limit the Spread of the Coronavirus

Software certainly cannot kill a virus; however, SafetyChain helps manufacturing companies ensure that:

  • all sanitation programs are being followed including those put in place for employees like hand washing, sterilizing barriers, and anything specific to preventing Coronavirus contamination in their facilities

  • all procedures are documented and instantly available during audits 

  • managers know which procedures have been carried out & carried out correctly

About Our FSMA Friday Presenter

This information was provided by the presenter for our February 2020 FSMA Friday webinar, Ben Miller, PhD, Senior Director of Food Safety for The Acheson Group. Dr. Miller has more than 20 years of industry experience in public health, food regulation, and food safety management. He is the Division Director of the Food and Feed Safety Division at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health.

For up-to-the-minute news and advice about how food and beverage manufacturers can best prepare for the Coronavirus, please visit The Acheson Group's web page dedicated to COVID-19.

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