The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published research into the length of time coronavirus can survive on the surface of food and packaging.
The previous risk assessment on this was in 2020 and concluded it was very unlikely that humans could catch the virus from food.
The research, conducted by the University of Southampton, shows that the virus’s survival varied depending on the foods and food packaging examined. It involved the artificial contamination of coronavirus onto the surfaces of a wide range of foods including various fruits and vegetables, cheese, meats, bread and pastries, and food packaging including plastic trays and bottles, drinks cans and cartons.
The foods tested were selected because they are commonly sold loose on supermarkets shelves or uncovered at deli counters or market stalls, they may be difficult to wash, and they are often consumed without any further processing i.e. cooking. The food packaging materials were selected as they are the most used food packaging materials or consumption of the product may involve direct mouth contact with the packaging.
The survival rate of the virus varied quite significantly depending on the type of food. High saturated fat and high protein foods seemed to best support longer SARS-CoV-2 virus survival.
For cheddar cheese and sliced ham, stored in refrigerated conditions and a range of relative humidity, the virus levels remained high up to a week later, when the testing period was stopped. Both cheddar cheese and sliced ham have high moisture, protein and saturated fat content, possibly offering protection to the virus. When apples and olives were tested, the virus was inactivated to the limit of detection very quickly, within an hour, when the first time point was measured. The research suggests that chemicals, such as flavonoids, present in the skin of apples and olives inactivate the virus. The rate of viral decrease was rapid, within a few hours, for croissants and pain au chocolate. These pastries are both coated with a liquid egg wash, which may have an inhibitory effect on the virus.
Food packaging materials tested had variable virus survival. For all food packaging, there was a significant drop in levels of virus contamination over the first 24 hours, in all relative humidity conditions and at both 6°C and 21°C; these included PET1 bottles and trays, aluminium cans and composite drinks cartons.
There may be some public interest in the finding that both chilled and ambient conditions at a range of relative humidity levels, some foods and food packaging material can sustain infectious virus for a significant length of time. There is the possibility of transmission through contaminated food if the food is in direct contact with the mouth and mucus membranes.
However, it is stated in the report the potential implications for public health are unclear since inhalation of respiratory aerosols and droplets is considered to be the main route of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
Additionally, that foods and packaging considered as part of this study were artificially inoculated with SARS-CoV-2 and therefore are not a reflection of contamination levels found on these foods at retail, and lower levels of contamination will require less time to decline to undetectable levels.
The FSA have confirmed there will be no change to their current advice that additional precautions are not required because of COVID outside of usual good hygiene practices. The study itself states that the survival of the COVID virus on different food types for short or longer periods of time reinforces the need to rigorously follow the guidance on maintaining appropriate hygienic handling measures and display of unpackaged foods.
When considering packaged foods, this study and other similar findings have shown that SARS-CoV-2 may be able to survive, for a prolonged period of time on food packaging. Future studies should recognise that incubating infectious agents on bare aluminium is not the same as on a coated aluminium can, nor on plain cardboard when considering coated drinks cartons, ie risk assessments should take into account the specific material concerned.
Click Survival of SARS-CoV-2 on food surfaces: Abbreviations and codes | Food Standards Agency to view the full research project report.
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