Checking for COVID-19 from Farm to Fork

Oct 28, 2020

The U.S. has one of the safest food systems in the world, but when a new coronavirus strikes, it takes new strategies to keep it that way. There are many unknowns as to whether COVID-19 can be transmitted through the food supply chain, but a team of scientists at Virginia Tech just got a million-dollar grant to find out.

The research team will conduct their research in a BSL-3 lab on Virginia Tech campus with live samples of the COVID-19 virus.
Credit Andrew Mann

The research team will examine every aspect of potential Covid-19 transmission via food, such as “how the virus, can be transferred from people’s hands to food and from contact surfaces to food.”

Reza Ovissipour teaches food, science and technology at Virginia Tech. He says the scope of the project is to ultimately find “how the virus can be transferred from the food surfaces or food packaging materials to consumer's hands.”

Ovissipour is leading a team of food scientists, virologists, and food engineers, to find out how this virus behaves. They are setting up real world simulation, on how COVID-19 behaves as an aerosol, using artificial saliva, conducting hundreds of experiments inside a high level Haz-Mat lab.

“We are creating droplets and we let the droplets sit on the surfaces and we take it from there. We are mimicking the real situation. If someone coughs and the droplets are on the surfaces (we’re trying to find out) how they can survive. So, we are technically mimicking the actual situation, which is happening in real world.”

 

For some experiments, they’ll use a pseudo form of the virus, plenty dangerous itself but not as potentially lethal as the real thing.  But they’re also testing with the actual virus and that requires VT’s level 3 labs (BSL3s), designed for dangerous, potentially lethal situations. The plan is to test every link in the food chain to see if they can catch a weak one-- that is to find out if any virus has survived.

“And if we detect the bacteria at the end of the food supply, it means it can be easily transferred through the food supply chain.”

 

The food supply chain is a sort of “Farm to Fork” journey. At this point, the assumption by experts is, COVID is not transmitted through food, but that’s why they’re testing, to make sure.

 

One incorrect, but widespread assumption among the public, is that the virus can be transmitted by handling packaging. But food science and communications specialist Renee Boyer would like to set the record straight.

 

“I would even go as far as to say that I don't think that it's necessary to quarantine packages, things that you purchase at the grocery store, or deliveries from Amazon. There's really no evidence at this point that that COVID is transmitted through food packaging or the food that we're eating.”

 

She points out, this virus spreads when we breathe air that's contaminated, from someone else, and not through food itself. 

 Michael Schwarz runs VTs food safety program and works closely with the food industry. He says, “If we do come up with scenarios where COVID does persist (on surfaces) for any amount of time, then we immediately go into the next phase."

That would mean taking a closer look at the efficacy of these different, food approved sanitizers, and make sure that if there is a problem, we concurrently develop a solution.

 

Shwarz explains that food grade sanitizers are widely used in many facets of food production and processing.

All of the teams’ finding will be reported to the public as soon as they’re confirmed, before they’re even peer reviewed or published. The scientists promise to translate their data into simplified language everyone can understand.  They’ll. publish one-page fact sheets so people can get access to the results quickly.

 

Renee Boyer says, “we're trying to get that science out there so that people aren't scared and are doing the right thing to prevent getting the illness, but not doing extra things that aren't necessary.”

 

Boyer has been publishing fact sheets on the pandemic ever since it began.  Here is the link.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.