Positive COVID-19 Tests Among Workers Likely Won’t Lead to Food Recalls: FDA

April 17, 2020 Updated: April 17, 2020

No food products will be recalled or otherwise removed from grocery stores even if people involved in the production test positive for COVID-19, a government official said.

“I am aware that some processing plants closed when employees tested positive for COVID-19. However, because of the way the virus is transmitted, we do not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or be withdrawn from the market if a person who works on a farm or in a food facility tests positive for COVID-19,” Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said in an interview published on the agency’s website.

No food products have been recalled by the FDA because of the new illness during the pandemic.

“I want to reassure you that the U.S. food supply remains safe for both people and animals. There is NO evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19,” Yiannas added.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 causes respiratory illnesses and is much more likely to be spread through person-to-person transmission.”

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A worker milks cows at Frank Konyn Dairy Inc. in Escondido, California, on April 16, 2020. (Ariana Drehsler/AFP via Getty Images)

The European Food Safety Authority and Food Standards Australia New Zealand also say there’s no evidence that COVID-9 infection spreads via food or food packaging.

COVID-19, the new disease infecting people across the United States, is caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, a novel coronavirus that emerged from mainland China last year.

Outbreaks of the virus at food manufacturing and processing plants have forced limitations and some closures. Smithfield Foods, the world’s larger pork processor, closed a hog slaughterhouse in South Dakota, a meat processing plant in Wisconsin, and a ham processing facility in Missouri. Tyson, JBS, and Frito-Lay have also shut down production facilities after workers tested positive.

Manufacturing facilities are spread throughout the United States, Yiannas noted, adding, “If one facility closes, there are other facilities that manufacture the same type of product that can help fill the demand.”

The FDA has slashed routine inspections of both farms and food manufacturing facilities as well as businesses in other countries that export food to the United States. The agency is doing a small number of inspections deemed “mission critical.”

Workers at manufacturing and processing facilities that aren’t closing are donning protective equipment and implementing social distancing measures. Grocery stores have boosted sanitizing measures, shortened hours, and erected plexiglass partitions separating workers from customers.

Farm worker harvest zucchini
Farm workers harvest zucchini on Sam Accursio & Son’s Farm in Florida City, Florida, on April 1, 2020. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Transmission

Experts agree with federal officials that there’s no evidence at this time that COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, another name for the CCP virus, is transmitted through food or food packaging.

“Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness and not food poisoning, and foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission,” Angela Shaw, a food safety state specialist and associate professor at Iowa State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said in a blog post on March 31.

Even if the virus does spread through food, it would be killed by cooking to the safe minimum cooking temperatures specified by the federal government, according to Cornell University’s Institute for Food Safety. Dr. Abinash Virk, a Mayo Clinic infectious diseases specialist, said the virus lasts on objects, such as foods, for one to three days.

“The biggest risk of contracting the virus from food would be if you touch food that’s been exposed and then touch your face,” she said. “In that sense it is best to wash your hands before and after handling food and washing unpeeled fruits and vegetables before you eat them.”

Experts recommend washing hands or using hand sanitizer before entering a grocery store or food market, trying to maintain at least 6 feet from other shoppers, sanitizing shopping cart and basket handles before use, avoiding touching products that aren’t needed, and wearing a mask while shopping.

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A worker wears a mask at a grocery store in Palatine, Illinois, on April 14, 2020. (Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)

Food System Holding Up

While shoppers are seeing some stores out of stock of some products, the food system is holding up, according to officials.

Sonny Perdue, the secretary of agriculture, told reporters this week that the bare shelves seen in some stores “are a demand issue, not a supply issue.”

Some restaurants shut down and others shifted to only take-out and delivery service amid the near-nationwide lockdowns, leading to an imbalanced supply chain and wasted food. Farmers providing dairy products, meat, and produce to restaurants, hotels, and schools have had to cut down on harvesting and, in some cases, dump product that was going bad.

With usual sources of meals limited or closed, more people are shopping for groceries and preparing food at home. The issues revolve around two different supply chains, one for grocery stores and one for restaurants and other commercial businesses.

Yiannas, the Food and Drug Administration official, said he’s seen temporary shortages at his local grocery store of pasta, flour, and some canned goods, and used the example of restaurants and bakeries using 50-pound bags of flour while consumers typically buy 5-pound bags.

“You might think of it as an interstate when it’s flowing in along well, and you have a crash in one place—it backs up. And that’s what’s happening in the food supply chain. But we’re working through that,” Perdue said.

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