British health experts have issued a warning that consuming fresh produce, baked goods, and certain ready-to-eat foods could put you at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus.
According to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), the virus that causes Covid-19 can live on some ready-to-eat groceries for days.
However, the scientists determined the risk of contracting the virus via food is classified as “very low.”
Scientists intentionally spread the virus on packaging and food products like fruit, pastries, and bottled drinks as part of research conducted by the University of Southampton, and commissioned by FSA.
“The researchers purposefully contaminated the surfaces of foods and food packaging with infectious SARS-CoV-2, measuring the decline in the presence of infectious virus on the surfaces over time, at a range of temperatures and relative humidity levels to reflect typical storage conditions,” FSA said in a statement.
Broccoli, peppers, apples, raspberries, cheddar cheese, ham slices, olives, olive brine, white and brown bread crusts, croissants, and pain au chocolat were all sampled and evaluated.
Foods were chosen because they are regularly eaten raw, are sold in bulk or in open containers, and may be difficult to wash.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET1) trays and bottles, aluminum cans, and composite drinks were also tested.
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The study’s results shows that the survival of the COVID-19 virus varied depending on the contaminated foods and food packaging. On some foods, such as cheese and ham, the virus survived for several days. On others, such as apples and olives, virus levels dropped quickly. For most food products tested there was a ‘significant drop’ in the levels of virus contamination over the first 24 hours.
For cheddar cheese and sliced ham, stored in refrigerated conditions and a range of relative humidity, virus levels remained high up to a week later, when the testing period ended. Both cheddar cheese and sliced ham have high moisture, protein, and saturated fat content, possibly offering protection to SARS-CoV-2. On apples and olives, the virus was inactivated to the limit of detection within an hour, when the first timed measurement was taken. The researchers question whether flavonoids present in the skin of apples and olives inactivate the virus. The rate of viral decrease was rapid and occurred within a few hours for croissants and pain au chocolat, the egg wash coating on both of which may inhibit SARS-CoV-2.
Food packaging materials tested had variable virus survival. For all food packaging (PET1 trays and bottles, aluminum cans, and composite drinks cartons), there was a significant drop in levels of COVID-19 contamination over the first 24 hours, in all relative humidity conditions and at both 6 °C and 21 °C.
Based on the current findings, FSA concluded that the assumptions the agency made in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic were appropriate, and that the probability of humans catching the virus through food is very low. The results will not lead to any changes in FSA’s official advice on COVID-19 and food handling, however, they may inform future FSA risk assessments.