Amid new fears around COVID-19 food transmission, experts say there is 'no compelling evidence'

Korin Miller
·5 mins read

New fears are being raised around food safety and COVID-19 after Chinese officials say they imported chicken from Brazil that tested positive for the coronavirus.

Government officials from Shenzhen, a coastal city near Hong Kong, said in a statement that a sample taken from the surface of the imported frozen chicken wings tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The chicken wings came from a Brazilian meat plant owned by Aurora, the country's third largest processor of chicken and pork.

The Brazilian Association of Animal Protein (ABPA) responded with a statement, according to CNN, that said it is reviewing the incident, adding, “There is no scientific evidence that meat transmits the virus. The ABPA also noted that “it is not yet clear when the packaging was contaminated and whether it occurred during the export transportation process.”

This isn’t the only time the linking of coronavirus and food safety has come up lately. Health officials in New Zealand said they’re investigating claims that a recent COVID-19 outbreak in the country, which had been free of the virus for more than 100 days, was linked to frozen food. One of the people infected works at the Americold food cold-storage facility in Auckland, a major New Zealand city. “We do know from studies overseas that actually the virus can survive in some refrigerated environments for quite some time,” Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand's director-general of health, said during a press conference on Wednesday.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently says there is “no evidence to suggest that handling food or consuming food is associated with COVID-19.” COVID-19 is mainly thought to spread from person to person through infected respiratory droplets produced when someone coughs, sneezes or talks, the CDC says. “It is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, including food or food packaging, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” the CDC says.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also says that the virus isn’t thought to spread through food. “There is currently no evidence that people can catch COVID-19 from food or food packaging,” the organization says, before reiterating that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. Coronaviruses can’t multiply in food, WHO says, noting that the virus needs a live animal or human host to multiply and survive.

While the CDC and WHO acknowledge that it’s possible for someone to contract COVID-19 from touching infected food or packaging, experts stress that the risk of this actually happening is extremely low. “This hasn’t happened. Epidemiologically, there isn’t any compelling evidence,” Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, tells Yahoo Life. “The general consensus in the food safety world is that consuming food that has SARS-CoV-2 on it is not likely to get you sick.” In terms of risk, Chapman says, “we’re talking likelihood of one in a billion.”

The risk of contracting the virus from touching infected food or food packaging is also low, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says. “There are no documented cases of people contracting COVID-19 from food,” he tells Yahoo Life. “You can find the virus on lots of surfaces, but that doesn’t mean it plays a major role in transmission.”

Frozen food, in particular, has been raised as a concern with COVID-19 risk, and there is some theory behind it, Darin Detwiler, director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University, tells Yahoo Life. “Freezing is more likely to inhibit growth than it will kill any virus or pathogen,” he says. Freezing is also how doctors and researchers store biological materials safely, Adalja says. But, again, coronaviruses cannot multiply in food — even frozen food. “There is no evidence that COVID-19 is a foodborne infection,” Adalja says.

It is important to note that Chinese officials found the virus’s RNA — its genetic material — on the food. “This is where things get a little technical,” Chapman says. “Finding viral RNA doesn’t mean that it’s a fully intact virus particle that can infect someone. The virus can dry out over time, but the RNA can still remain there.”

Overall, experts say that people should not panic over fears they will contract COVID-19 from their food or food packaging. “This isn’t anything major that people should worry about,” Adalja says. “There is some nonzero risk, but it’s not a major risk.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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