Issue #11 2021-10-25
COVID-19 as a food-borne illness and heavy metals in baby food
COVID transmission through food; researchers ask some tough questions
New traceability rules for China
Heavy metals in US baby foods, Part I
Raw offal, anyone? Anyone?
Food fraud incidents from the past week
Welcome to Issue 11 of The Rotten Apple.
It’s theoretically possible for COVID-19 to be a food-borne illness, transmitted by the faecal-oral route, according to a recently published paper. I dive into that, plus three other new papers about COVID in food in this issue.
Also this week, unsafe concentrations of heavy metals in baby-food, Part I; What happened? (Part II, next week: How?)
As always, this issue ends with a list of food fraud incidents from the past week.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. If you want to know why I’m doing this, I explain it here.
P.P.S. I love it when you share this newsletter with your network. Thank you, for all the shares every week.
COVID and Food
The last month has seen a flurry of research published about COVID and food, as scientists ask:
“Are we really sure that COVID-19 can’t be transmitted through the food chain?”
As one team of researchers said “Public consultations are stating that food is not a probable vehicle of SARS–CoV–2 transmission, but there is lack of experimental data supporting this opinion” (Economou et al (2021)).
Overall there is agreement that food itself isn’t widely responsible for transmitting CoVID-19, although some researchers noted that foodborne transmission is theoretically possible. Transmission of the virus via packages of cold and frozen food to workers who handle the packages is being flagged as a possible threat.
More details (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTENT IS SUITABLE FOR PUBLIC-HEALTH AND FOOD-SAFETY NERDS ONLY!)
I reviewed four papers published in the last 2 months. Here’s a quick summary of each.
1. Lu et al. (2021) successfully isolated SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) from cold-chain seafood and from food packaging surfaces. They reported that SARS-CoV-2 is “highly stable” under refrigerated and freezing conditions and suggested frozen food packages were a possible source of reinfection of previously COVID-free areas of China in 2020.
They concluded that the risk of infection from food and food packaging is very low but that consumers “may be exposed to contaminated food when buying [refrigerated and frozen] groceries”.
2. He et al. (2021) focussed on the survival of the virus on the outer packages of cold and frozen foods. Their paper discusses methods for disinfecting food packaging surfaces in the cold chain, including at temperatures below freezing.
The whole paper is premised on the fact that ‘object to human’ transmission is occurring – the word they use is “confirmed” – and that the human food cold chain is a vehicle in transmission. They cite previous research showing that SARS-CoV-2 was successfully isolated from the surface of imported frozen food packages and may have caused a “recurrence of COVID-19 cases in the destination”.
3. Economou et al. (2021) asked questions about the virus in animals, animal foods and water as well as considering whether it can be transmitted from human-to-human via the faecal-oral route.
On this topic, they note that ‘live’ SARS-CoV-2 virions have been observed by other researchers in the stools of CoVID-19 patients. They say the faecal-oral transmission route has been observed in experimental monkeys and that it may have played a role in the super-spreading event on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Live food animals and drinking water are considered by Economou et al. to be unlikely exposure routes. The virus can be detected in contaminated water and waste water but is unlikely to remain viable in drinking water. It hasn’t been detected in tap water.
However they did note that it is theoretically possible for shellfish grown in contaminated water to become contaminated with the virus and for that to lead to food-borne infections.
Unsurprisingly, these researchers recommend “the strict application of hygiene measures at all stages of food production and preparation”.
4. Locas et al. (2021) investigated the likelihood of Canadian consumers being exposed to the virus through the food chain. They considered risk profiles from scenarios including survival of the virus on surfaces in food establishments, survival of processes like cooking, likelihood of asymptomatic shoppers contaminating food items in stores and cross-contamination inside people’s homes.
They suggested that a large number of sequential and unlikely events would need to occur to result in the exposure of consumers via food. They concluded there is no risk and say that this is confirmed by the fact that there haven’t been any cases that have been conclusively linked to food or food packaging.
My HACCP-instincts were affronted by this! It’s all very well to say that something is unlikely to happen, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t or can’t happen. In fact, a major aim of modern food safety systems is to prevent incidents that have not happened before. To say “it hasn’t happened before, therefore there is no risk” is just plain wrong.
Having said that, existing food hygiene practices should be pretty effective at mitigating these (new) risks, as Locas et al. noted.
The verdict (so far)?
Consumers are probably safe (Locas et al.)… although “it hasn’t happened before” is not a good reason to disregard the risks.
Handlers of food packages in the cold chain: may not be safe (Lu et al., He et al.).
It is theoretically possible for COVID-19 to be transmitted by eating food or being exposed to contaminated water (Economou et al.).
In short: 🍏 Scientists agree that food-borne transmission of COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be happening frequently, if at all 🍏 It is, however, theoretically possible for people to catch the virus from food by the faecal-oral route 🍏 The virus can remain viable on the outside of packages of refrigerated and frozen food for “some time” 🍏 This poses very low risk to consumers, but a potential risk to package handlers 🍏
Lu et al (2021) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jfs.12932
He etal (2021) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eng.2021.08.013
Economou et al (2021) https://www.mdpi.com/2673-947X/1/3/8/htm
Locas et al, (2021): https://doi.org/10.4315/JFP-21-218
See also: Issue #2 of The Rotten Apple, where I shared research about the survival of SARS-CoV-2 on raw beef and mutton.
Traceability gets a boost in China
A few weeks ago I wrote about how the US FDA is drafting new rules to improve produce traceability. Now it’s China’s turn.
Last week Chinese media reported that a new law has been drafted in China that aims to improve the traceability, quality and safety of agricultural products.
In short: 🍏 New traceability laws coming to China for agricultural products 🍏
Heavy Metals in Baby Foods, Part I
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. More than five big brands have been named in a damning report on toxic heavy metals in baby foods by the U.S. House of Representatives.
This is dreadful stuff! It’s the second report this year by the house subcommittee about the same problem. The second report, published last week, was supposed to be a follow-up of three food companies that had failed to assist investigators during the writing of the first report.
Those three food companies have since been found to be (1) making ‘dangerous’ products, (2) displaying a ‘concerning lack of attention’ to toxic heavy metals levels and (3) displaying a lax approach to testing for heavy metals.
It gets worse.
In the interval between the first and second reports, a baby food company that was named in the first report but that wasn’t supposed to be the subject of the second report found themselves in an unexpected recall. The recall was due to the presence of toxic heavy metals in their baby food… heavy metals found by Alaskan state officials during a product testing program. So not a voluntary recall then!
The Alaskan test results showed ‘dangerous’ high levels in that baby food and also in another brand… a brand that was NOT recalled. Why was the second brand not recalled? The report doesn’t say. Very mysterious!
Oh, and by the way…. the brand that was recalled,? Apparently their recall ‘appears to be incomplete’.
So are we talking real food safety risks here or not? These heavy metals are naturally occurring contaminants and the legal limits are changing, but (short answer!) yes: yes this is a real risk to babies. And this is damning evidence of failures in the implementation of US preventive controls rules. More on this next week.
In short: 🍏 Baby food in the US has been repeatedly found to contain unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals 🍏 Some food manufacturer’s ingredient and product testing systems are lax or non-existent 🍏 Not all dangerous products have been recalled 🍏 At least one recall was ‘incomplete’ 🍏
Raw balls (Just for fun)
What do sheep's testicles taste like when eaten raw?
Have you always wanted to know what raw offal tastes like? No, me either!
According to a YouTuber who eats only raw meat, including raw chicken and raw offal and who calls himself ‘CarnivoreLife’, this is waht raw sheep testicles taste like:
"They have metallic notes, likely from the zinc content, a sweet after taste and the consistency of a scallop."
🍏 🍏 🍏
Food Fraud Incidents and Horizon Scanning
Food fraud incidents added to Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week
Palm oil with Sudan IV dye found in Europe (again!) https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/rasff-window/screen/notification/508424
Authorities have seized 2,500 kg of spices, including chilli powder adulterated with harmful colors, from a premises with unhygienic conditions - Pakistan https://www.dawn.com/news/1653339/2500kg-adulterated-spices-seized