EFSA chief: EU food safety rules ensure protection against COVID-19

Bernhard Url is the Executive Director-General of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). [EFSA]

Although coronavirus can survive on surfaces for a limited time, food safety regulations in EU member states ensure a high level of protection against contaminated food, said the chief of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Bernhard Url in an interview.

Url spoke with EURACTIV Croatia on the sidelines of the 75 EFSA Advisory Forum meeting, which was planned to take place in Osijek, where Croatian Food Safety agency is located, on 1-2 April but was converted into a virtual event given the current COVID-19 pandemic.

He stressed that there is currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission, as EFSA stated on 9 March.

No evidence of COVID-19 transmission through food, says EFSA

There is currently “no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission” of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has concluded.

“Transmission is linked to the respiratory tract. This means the virus spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” Url said.

An infected person can contaminate food by preparing or handling it with dirty hands or via infectious droplets. However, he said that EU food safety regulations ensure a high level of protection against contaminated food.

According to Url, the EU has strict rules in place guaranteeing a high level of food safety, including biosecurity measures and good hygiene practices for food workers.

These measures already protect consumers from other possible infections via contaminated food, not just the coronavirus, he added.

“Still, I cannot stress enough the importance of high standards of hygiene, also in our households, when we are preparing food,” he continued, adding that hygiene is key, not only to prevent COVID-19 but any kind of foodborne infection.

“We can all take simple precautions such as washing and sanitising all food contact surfaces and utensils, washing our hands and properly cooking food for example,” he said.

Additionally, he said that this virus, as with other known coronaviruses, is sensitive to cooking temperatures.

Belgian health authorities have recently taken the decision not to serve rare steaks and meats in restaurants and cafeterias.

This is in line with food safety precautions of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has issued precautionary recommendations including advice on following good hygiene practices during food handling and preparation, such as washing hands, cooking meat thoroughly and avoiding potential cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked foods.

Asked which scientific experiments contribute to the conclusion that transmission through food consumption did not occur, he mentioned experience from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as SARS and the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus

He also said that health authorities such as the WHO or the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agree that food is not a vehicle for infection.

“However, we are closely monitoring the scientific literature for any new and relevant information,” he added.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in animals and humans and they are one of the main reasons for the common cold which many of us suffer from every year.

“The new SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to follow this pattern, as it affects the respiratory tract,” he said. “Until now we have no evidence of a foodborne coronavirus infection of humans.”

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna and Benjamin Fox]

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