By David B. Strickland
Poultry Times editor
WASHINGTON — Claims of novel coronavirus contaminating chicken wing shipments from Brazil to China, has raised concerns and suspended some exports between Brazil and some Asian destinations. While national and international health organizations maintain that food-handling remains safe.
On Aug. 17, reports noted that officials in China’s port city Shenzhen said that a warehouse has been prepared there to further test containers of frozen poultry and meat products for traces of COVID-19. This stemmed from earlier claims that the virus had been detected on chicken wing shipments imported from Brazil.
The Brazilian company, Aurora, voluntarily suspended its exports to China on Aug. 20, seeking more clarification, according to wire reports. Brazilian authorities are also asking Chinese authorities for laboratory results that show the product was coronavirus contaminated.
The claims led to similar shipment suspensions to Hong Kong and the Philippines, but on Aug. 28, the Hong Kong government announced that it had lifted its temporary ban on Brazilian shipments.
Poultry groups worldwide are pointing to information from world health organizations that there is no evidence that packaging from animal food products spreads the COVID-19 virus.
ABPA, the Brazilian Association of Animal Protein, noted that it’s analyzing the information that it has regarding the detection of coronavirus on packages shipped to Shenzhen, China.
“It remains unclear at what stage the possible contamination of the packaging occurred, and whether it occurred during the export transport process. Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply is in contact with GACC (China’s official sanitary agency), which will perform the final analysis of the situation,” ABPA said in a statement. “ABPA reiterates that there is no scientific evidence that meat can transmit the virus, as has been stressed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA). Simultaneously, Brazil’s export sector reaffirms that since the beginning of the global pandemic, all measures have been taken, and have been enhanced in recent months, to protect the health of workers and to ensure the safety of products.”
“First of all, to-date, no single case of transmission of COVID-19 via food packaging or food itself has been recorded,” the International Poultry Council said in a statement. “Recent news of a finding of the COVID-19 virus associated with an imported poultry wing in China, of which the specific details are still to be released, have resulted in inaccurate information being written regarding the safety of imported poultry product.”
The IPC added that, “It is important to specify that the detection of genetic material belonging to the COVID-19 virus is not an index of infectivity of the package or product sampled, but only that the tested surface has come into contact with viral material that may not be alive, viable and infectious. Inactive fragments of the virus may remain on surfaces, but these inactive fragments cannot transmit COVID-19 and most tests cannot differentiate between inactive non-infectious virus fragments and viable virus. Therefore, caution in the interpretation of test results is required.”
The IPC also noted that, “Food safety is of the highest importance for the global poultry sector as all work to feed consumers globally. It is critical that governments and the private sector work together to ensure food safety, ensure global food trade, and ensure consumer access to safe and nutritious poultry meat.”
These export suspensions are between Brazil and some Asian nations; however, U.S. poultry industry groups are also noting the safety of poultry products.
“There is no justification for any country to ban poultry imports based on scientifically unfounded fears prompted by unsubstantiated reports in the media,” said Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council. “Such action would only be a disadvantage to its own consumer population.”
Health organizations & food safety
The IPC added that COVID-19 is not an issue of food safety. It’s a respiratory disease that is primarily spread person-to-person through respiratory infection.
“There is no evidence of virus transfer via packaging to date,” IPC said. “Research has indicated that the SARS-CoV-2 virus only lasts up to 24 hours on cardboard and 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel. Current safety measures and practices should minimize or eliminate the risk of exposure to viable infectious viruses due to packaging, when considering factors of time, temperature and medium from initial packaging till utilization.”
In materials on the virus supplied by the World Health Organization, it reiterates that, “There is no evidence to date of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses being transmitted via food or food packaging. Coronaviruses cannot multiply in food; they need an animal or human host to multiply.”
The WHO, however, adds that, “It is imperative for the food industry to reinforce personal hygiene measures and provide refresher training on food hygiene principles to eliminate or reduce the risk of food surfaces and food packaging materials becoming contaminated with virus from food workers.”
In addressing how the virus is spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that, “The virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be spread mainly from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Spread is more likely when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).”
CDC also maintains that touching such items as food packages is not a main path of infection.
“It may be possible that people can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, such as a food package or dining ware that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes,” CDC says. “However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food of food packaging,” says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.”
Safety and world trade
In a joint statement released by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the two note the importance of food safety and ensuring consumers of the safety of food exports and food products.
“The United States understands the concerns of consumers here domestically and around the world who want to know that producers, processors and regulators are taking every necessary precaution to prioritize food safety especially during these challenging times,” the statement said. “However, efforts by some countries to restrict global food exports related to COVID-19 transmission are not consistent with the known science of transmission.”
“There is no evidence that people can contract COVID-19 from food or from food packaging,” the statement added. “The U.S. food safety system, overseen by our agencies, is the global leader in ensuring the safety of our food products, including product for export.”