By Chris Blasinsky
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Whoever said normal is boring probably didn’t have to change an entire business model in a matter of days. (A nod to Marilyn Monroe—“Being normal is boring.”)
These days, convenience retail is anything but boring—except not for the same reasons as a little as one month ago. Since March, retailers have completely pivoted their business practices to ensure they can provide a safe environment for their employees and customers, provide daily essentials for their community and keep stores in operation amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Retailers have shut down prepared food offers altogether or eliminated self-serve options like roller grills, fountain (cold and frozen dispensed) and bakery cases. Others have closed franchise foodservice programs inside stores, and some are capping the number of people allowed inside the store, or they cannot allow customers inside at all.
Beyond working to keep stores stocked and employees and customers safe, convenience retailers, designated as essential businesses by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on March 19, have been addressing myriad local, state and even county regulations—including local ordinances where officials initially confused convenience stores as cafés and restaurants.
As one retailer commented, we’re all feeling our way through this, and we’re all addressing new types of employee and consumer concerns. Here are some of the top food-related questions industry stakeholders are responding to:
Are Food and Food Packaging Safe?
The short answer is yes, and as more information about the virus is published and the broader food retail industry community, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), continue to clarify questions around food and food packaging as sources for COVID-19.
“Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. This virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person [through respiratory droplets]. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission,” wrote Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner of the Office of Food Policy and Response, in Food Safety News.
Yiannas continued that for these reasons, the FDA does not anticipate “that food products would need to be recalled or withdrawn from the market for reasons related to the outbreak, even if a person who works in a human or animal food facility (e.g. a food packager) is confirmed to be positive for the COVID-19 virus.” On March 18, the FDA hosted a call with the food industry community, Yiannas said that the U.S. food supply remains safe, there are no food shortages and food manufacturing has not been disrupted.
The FDA also notes on its website that it may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
In general, the FDA suggests that “because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated or frozen temperatures. It is more likely that a person will be exposed by person-to-person transmission involving close contact with someone who is ill or shedding the virus.”
For those who are concerned about the possible contamination of food and food packaging, whether product was purchased from the convenience or grocery store, or delivered from a local restaurant, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you return from the store and after removing packaging from food, per the CDC.
Is Produce Safe?
There are biological factors at play: COVID-19 could be present on food, whether from someone sneezing or coughing on it, etc., but the risk of infection from that product would be very low, and there has been no indication that food could be a source of infection, notes Dr. Ben Chapman, extension food safety specialist and associate professor at the University of North Carolina.
Chapman explains in a video with “Science Comedian” Brian Malow, that COVID-19 wants to attach to and infect respiratory tract cells. So, if COVID-19 were to be present on food, as the food travels through the digestive system, there aren’t enough respiratory cells present for the virus to attach itself to. And as soon as the food hits your stomach, the protein coat on the virus will denature. In other words, the stomach is not the right environment for the virus.
In respect to safe food-handling procedures, it is impossible to be 100% risk-free, but there are ways to help manage risk. Hilary Thesmar, PhD, RD, CFS, chief food and product safety officer, senior vice president, food safety, at FMI, wrote on the association’s blog that people could consider using hand sanitizer before and after selecting produce items and avoid touching multiple produce items when making selections.
“As per good food-handling practices in general, wash hands before food preparation or eating, avoid touching the face and consider supplementing handwashing with the use of hand sanitizer. Just before use, make sure you rinse your produce under running water. There is no need to wash packaged fruits and vegetables labeled ‘ready-to-eat,’ ‘washed’ or ‘triple washed.’ Do not wash produce with soap, detergent, or chlorine as these products are not intended for consumption,” she wrote.
What About Surfaces?
There’s been questions around how long COVID-19 can survive on contaminated surfaces. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that the virus can be detected in aerosols for up to three hours, as well as up to four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
Dr. Brian A. Nummer, PhD, at the Utah State University Food Safety Extension, shared with members of the Conference for Food Protection that data from the study likely simulates worst case scenarios. “And, how exposure to sunlight, heat or cold, can affect COVID-19 survival times is not known yet,” he said, adding that in contrast, a 2011 study found that “the H1N1 flu remained infectious for up to 48 hours after landing on non-porous surfaces” such as stainless steel or plastic; however, most virus particles “were inactivated after nine hours. Both cold and flu viruses survive for much shorter times on porous surfaces such as cloth, paper, or tissue, with very little infectious virus remaining after four hours.”
Virus survival was also raised in a CDC report on cruise ships, which suggested COVID-19 could be detectable on surfaces for at least 17 days. In an email to members of the Conference for Food Protection, Dr. Don Schaffner at Rutgers University clarified that the virus does not survive for 17 days: “What the report says is that nucleic acid from the virus is detectable after 17 days, which is not the same as an infectious virus particle,” he said.
NACS maintains a page online that answers the questions retailers are asking to help them navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit the Coronavirus Resources page.
The late Maya Angelou once said: “If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” In today’s context, everyone is seeking a return to normal, and in that journey we’re learning how amazing this industry and its people can be.
Chris Blasinsky is the content communications strategist at NACS. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.