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close up of food factory worker's hands in blue gloves placing chicken schnitzel into packaging
10 minute read

Is our Food Supply Safe from COVID-19?

By: Sovereign Insurance

COVID-19 has permeated all corners of the globe, and as we’ve seen, no community, business or industry is impervious. This can be especially concerning when considering the potential impact to the food industry. There have been outbreaks in food processing plants across Canada and the United States, forcing plants to close primarily to protect the health and safety of their employees. It’s very difficult for employees to maintain physical distancing in these processing plants where they work hand in hand to process and package food. Viral spread can be swift in such conditions.

For example, the COVID-19 outbreak discovered at Vancouver, British Colombia chicken processing plant, United Poultry Co. Ltd., resulted in 28 employees infected out of 71 staff members present at the plant when they carried out testing.1 That number was expected to climb as there were several staff members not present due to illness.

In April, a Cargill plant south of Calgary, Alberta, shut down temporarily following the death of one employee and more than 484 people infected due to a COVID-19 outbreak.2

In the United States, COVID-19 outbreaks have caused the closure of significant meat packing plants. To provide some perspective of just how significant and rapid the spread, the rates of infection for these closed plants are about 75% higher than the counties’ rates.3

Are food products and packaging still safe?

The big question on everyone’s mind is whether COVID-19 can spread through food products/packaging; simply put, is our food supply safe?

In response to the case at the United Poultry Co. Ltd. plant in B.C., provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said “we don’t have any evidence that COVID-19 can be spread from meat and from consuming products like that or from packaging on meat or chicken in this case.1” Siyun Wang, associate professor at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia provided a similar response to the Cargill incident, stating: “the virus is passed through person-to-person contact. What happened in the meat-packing plant in Alberta was also due to person-to-person contact.2

Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety and a professor at the University of Guelph, Jeffery Farber says, while it is “theoretically possible,” the actual risk is “extremely low.2” He explains, “if a person sneezes or coughs directly on the meat, then the aerosol droplets could theoretically land on the meat”2, but added that “because workers often wear masks, it’s not a concern”2. So what happens if a droplet lands on your meat? Farber says the period of time it takes for that product to reach your dinner plate would result “in a further reduction in any viral particles that may be present.2” As such, it is unlikely consumers can catch COVID-19 from food.

Both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) support the statements above. Both the CFIA and FDA state that there have been no reported cases of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.4,5

How does COVID-19 spread?

Heath Canada4 states that the COVID-19 virus spreads from an infected person through:

  • Respiratory droplets generated from coughing and/or sneezing
  • Close, prolonged personal contact such as touching and/or shaking hands
  • Touching something with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands

Viruses are often passed to customers from food handlers who are infected and don’t follow safe food handing procedures when preparing or serving food.

What have we learned from similar viral spreads?

COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. Learnings from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), show that transmission through food consumption did not occur6

In general, coronaviruses are very stable in a frozen state according to studies of other coronaviruses, which have shown survival for up to two years at -20°C6. Studies conducted on SARS-CoV ad MERS-CoV indicate that these viruses can persist on different surfaces for up to a few days depending on a combination of parameters such as temperature, humidity and light. For example, at refrigeration temperature (4°C), MERS-CoV can remain viable for up to 72 hours6. Current evidence on other coronavirus strains shows that while coronaviruses appear to be stable at low and freezing temperatures for a certain period, food hygiene and good food safety practices can prevent their transmission through food. Specifically, coronaviruses are thermolabile, which means that they’re susceptible to normal cooking temperatures (70°C)6. Therefore, as a general rule, the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided. SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV are susceptible to the most common cleaning and disinfection protocols and there’s no indication so far that SARS-Cov-2 behaves differently.

"Both the CFIA and FDA state that there have been no reported cases of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19"

How have supply chains been affected? 

While COVID-19 is unlikely to spread through food products, viral outbreaks have caused many food processing plants to temporarily shut down and/or reduce production operations to accommodate enhanced safety requirements such as greater sanitation and physical distancing. 

Workers in PPE stand close together on a poultry processing line
Workers stand close together on a poultry processing line, illustrating the challenges of physical distancing in plants.3

For some farmers, this situation has resulted in an excess of produce and livestock. Several disheartening stories have hit the news, including reports of dairy farmers dumping milk they can’t sell to processors, fruit and vegetables rotting in fields amid labor and distribution disruptions9, and  hog producers being forced to dispose of their animals10. With reduced processing capacity, these disruptions have further led to food shortages for end consumers, specifically for some key products like beef, pork, fish and shellfish. 

McDonalds Canada, for example, said it’s changing their policy of serving only Canadian beef “due to limited processing capacity at Canadian suppliers”, calling out the Cargill plant in particular. While they will continue to purchase as much Canadian beef as possible, these supply chain issues require them to supplement with imports11.

The shutdown or reduced operations of restaurants has also had a significant impact on supply chains. The potato industry, for instance, has found itself in a crisis caused by the slashed demand for French fries that were intended to be served in restaurants12

Plastic barriers between workers in full PPE at a Tyson Foods meat and poultry plant
Tyson foods has installed plastic barriers between worker stations at its meat and poultry plants to protect against transmission of COVID-19.3

How to manage oversupply

While some products, like potatoes, can be stored in a warehouse and sold at a later date, others like milk don’t have such a generous shelf life. In these cases, donating the product to a local food bank may seem like a positive solution to manage the oversupply, but a perishable food donation influx presents challenges as well.13

For instance, David Wiens, Vice-President of the Dairy Farmers of Canada says "[having] this tidal wave of milk and dairy products coming through their distribution can be overwhelming for [food banks]” 13 and they may not have the storage capacity to refrigerate the products. In addition, milk still must first be processed from raw milk – an added cost and step in the supply chain.

While donations present a solution that’s certainly better than the food going to waste, Wiens says “the supply management system is now working to determine how long this change in demand will last and whether the lost demand from food service clients will be offset by increases on the retail side” 13.

Farmers are faced with curtailing production to meet the new and changing needs of consumers, all under uncertain circumstances of the pandemic. And since farmers don’t know how long it will be before things return to normal, this creates the added challenge of anticipating supply and demand so that they’re ready to ramp back up when demand returns to previous levels.13

In summary…

Based on expert opinions, it appears that food that is directly exposed to COVID-19 is safe to distribute and consume provided safe food handling practices are observed to eliminate the spread of COVID-19. Overall, based on evidence to date, it appears that the risk of catching COVID-19 from food is very low. 

As there appears to be no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 through food or food packaging at this time, there does not appear to be a direct threat to our food supply when it comes to COVID-19 contamination. 

However, this doesn’t mean the impact of COVID-19 isn’t felt throughout the supply chain, and in food processing plants. The virus may affect the ability of food processors to operate at full capacity due to the significant limitations required to allow staff to remain physically distant at the workplace. The impact also trickles through the supply chain, in some cases causing troubling oversupply issues for farmers. 

The new realities brought on by the pandemic are challenging, particularly when it comes to essential products like food. While it’s difficult to predict supply and demand trends under such uncertain circumstances, we will hopefully begin to see the food industry stabilize as provinces begin to open up and return to a ‘new normal’.

As time goes on, we continue to learn more about the coronavirus and how it interacts and develops. As such, we encourage everyone to remain diligent. We’re reminded by the CFIA of the importance of food safety4:

  • Washing hands
  • Regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces
  • Cooking meat thoroughly
  • Avoiding potential cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked foods.

Please tune into current news for more recent updates.

Sources:
1. COVID-19 outbreak discovered at Vancouver chicken processing plant | CBC News. (2020, April 21). Retrieved June 15, 2020,
2. Niazi, A. (2020, April 22). Should I be concerned about the outbreak at the meat ... - CBC. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
3. Bagenstose, K., Chadde, S., & Wynn, M. (2020, April 22). Coronavirus at meatpacking plants worse than first thought, USA TODAY investigation finds. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
4. Government of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency. (2020, May 11). Government of Canada / Gouvernement du Canada. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2020, June 15). COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
6. World Health Organization (WHO). (2020, February 21). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 32. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
7. Canadian Public Health Association. (n.d.). Foodborne illnesses -- what causes food poisoning. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
8. Understanding Food-Borne Bacteria, Viruses and Parasites. (2019, October 10). Retrieved June 15, 2020,
9. Jacobs, J., & Mulvany, L. (2020, April 29). Trump Orders Meat Plants to Stay Open in Move Unions Slam. Retrieved June 15, 2020, 
10. Skerritt, J., Hirtzer, M., & Almeida, I. (2020, May 23). Farmers Are Starting to Destroy Their Pigs After Factories Close. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
11. Global News. (2020, April 29). McDonald's Canada to start importing beef over supply concerns amid COVID-19. Retrieved June 15, 2020
12. Akin, D. (2020, June 03). Canada's meat-and-potato problem: Coronavirus pandemic hits the food supply chain. Retrieved June 15, 2020,
13. Sagan, A. (2020, April 27). Why Canada's dairy farmers are dumping milk despite food supply issues in COVID-19 | CBC News. Retrieved June 15, 2020

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