Coronavirus and Food Safety: The Latest Consumer Fear

Consumers around the world are fearful about the latest novel coronavirus (currently named “2019-nCoV”), which has so far infected tens of thousands of people and killed hundreds more. As with any major viral outbreak, concerns arise over the safety of our nation’s food supply. Here is what we know so far:

  1. Health authorities report that coronaviruses are most commonly passed between animals and people and person to person. From what we know now, food and ingredients are likely safe because the coronavirus needs a living host and isn’t generally known to be transmitted in food or beverages. Still, consumers may not completely understand or trust this information, creating a challenge for the food industry.
  2. 2019-nCoV can be passed when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or otherwise exposes others to “infections droplets” or germs. That means when a food service employee gets sick, they can pass the virus not just to coworkers but to consumers. We’ve seen it happen in the US to restaurants like Chipotle and food producers like Alma Pak.

As a start, food manufacturers, distributors, retailers and restaurants must double down on routine food-safety practices. This simply means strictly enforcing their hand-washing policies and sending employees home even if they only have the sniffles. It’s about good hygiene training, monitoring employees with food contact for illness, re-enforcing strong food safety protocols, and eliminating hand-on-food contact by using gloves. And to protect yourself further, make sure you document all these activities should regulators or health officials investigate your practices in the future.

At the same time, stay on top of the latest information about the specifics of 2019-nCoV and strengthen your food safety efforts accordingly. For example, when it came to SARS, another coronavirus strain, a heat treatment of at least 30min at 60ºC killed the virus. That means certain foods, when cooked thoroughly, pose no food safety threat. Fresh foods, on the other hand, pose a special problem, so extra care must be taken.

You will also want to reassure consumers that you’re taking preventive steps to address the issue and that there is no known threat posed by the food they consume. In ordinary circumstances, you wouldn’t want to raise the subject with consumers, but in this case, they are already concerned because of widespread news reports.

Finally, plan for likely and potential scenarios. Are you ready if health inspectors, during routine visits, press you further on your hygiene and food handling standards because of coronavirus fears? How will you respond if a consumer calls with concerns about coronavirus and alleges a link to your product, store or restaurant location? What will you do if an outbreak ultimately implicates you? Is a recall a possibility? Will you be forced to close your restaurant temporarily?

With experience handling thousands of product safety and recall events, we have a unique perspective on the risks, challenges, and often over-looked opportunities associated with these types of reputational matters. Call on us any time. We’re here to help.

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