Story at a glance
- New COVID-19 outbreaks in China have been linked to food markets and supply chains, prompting new rules on imported goods.
- Public health experts and scientists concur that it is highly unlikely to catch a COVID-19 infection through food consumption.
Following China’s announcement that it came across active COVID-19 viral particles on packages of imported frozen foods, questions regarding how the virus can spread have resurfaced.
Speaking to The Associated Press, experts have noted that while the virus can survive on items like plastic and cardboard containers, exactly how risky it is to catch a COVID-19 infection from contact with these surfaces is unknown.
Public health officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) said that cases of live viral particles on packaging tend to be “rare and isolated,” although it can technically “survive a long time under cold storage conditions.”
So far, no evidence of a COVID-19 infection stemming from food consumption has been identified.
China alerted the world to the possibility that frozen foods could carry the virus when outbreaks linked to food markets and shipping handlers occurred as early as June. No evidence suggests the packaging was the source of the outbreak, and person-to-person transmission is still a viable possibility.
This concern has had ripple effects in the global economy, with trading partners like New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. decrying the additional regulations China imposes on imported products.
In response, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the measures are “necessary following the spirit of putting people’s lives first and protecting people’s health.”
Experts have previously said that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted via aerosol and unlikely to infect an individual from contact on exposed surfaces and food.
This is largely due to the structure of the viral particles. Professor Matthew Moore of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst notes that COVID-19 is built with a lipid envelope around its nucleic acid, making it less durable on surfaces.
Timothy Newman of the University of Sydney concurs.
“It is possible and may represent some risk, but it’s certainly at the lower end of risk for transmission,” he told reporters. “We know low temperatures do stabilize the virus. Nonetheless, I think things which have been transported and surface transmission — there’s a low risk of it.”
The WHO has also commissioned an advisory publication, again noting that multiple regulatory agencies have not found any evidence of transmission from food packages.
“The United States Food and Drug Administration (US-FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards also stated that there’s no evidence of COVID-19 transmission from food," the publication said.
Even if a COVID-19 viral particle was consumed, researchers note that it could not survive the high acidity levels in the human stomach.
As a precaution, the WHO recommends food delivery personnel and customers should follow public health protocols and sanitary practices.