COVID-19 and its impact on the food system
Two food technologists offer insights on nutrition, food safety and security in relation to the ongoing pandemic.
Food is an essential part of life, providing us with the nutrition we need for survival; but the pandemic has plunged the entire food system into eccentric circumstances. The lack of adequate food, combined with labour shortages, fragmented supply chains and panic over associated health hazards, could lead to paucity of proper nutrition and food scarcity.
Thus, various preventative actions should be taken by the concerned authorities to mitigate these negative impacts on the food system. This article will outline the most pressing issues related to nutrition, food safety and security during the current pandemic crisis, as well as strategies to mitigate them and novel approaches to reinforce the food system for the post-pandemic era.
Nutrition and health during COVID-19
COVID-19 mainly affects the lower respiratory tract and poses a significant risk for the older population, immune-compromised individuals (cancer, organ transplant and HIV-AIDS patients), and those with comorbid conditions (diabetes, obesity and blood pressure issues).
The food we consume has a significant impact on our health and wellbeing. Foods rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), functional foods containing bioactive molecules (antioxidants, anti-inflammatory substances and immune boosters), herbs, spices, dietary fibres and probiotics all offer an immune system boost and help to combat viral infections.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued guidelines regarding nutrition for adults, which includes consuming eight to 10 glasses of water per day, fruits (two cups), vegetables (2.5 cups), whole grains, legumes, nuts, meat, milk, eggs and fish. In addition, WHO recommends consuming moderate amounts of fats and oils, and limiting the intake of salt, sugar and highly processed foods rich in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates.1
During this crisis, various bioactive compounds can help to improve our immunity.2 For example, vitamin C- (ascorbic acid) rich foods, such as citrus fruits, amla, kiwi and broccoli, can help enhance our immunity against respiratory tract infections. Likewise, vitamin A- (retinol, retinoic acid and β-carotene) rich fruits and vegetables, including papaya, carrots, spinach and sweet potato, can also help to lower susceptibility to infections. Moreover, supplements of vitamin D, vitamin E and minerals such as copper, iron, zinc and magnesium have been highly acclaimed to enhance our resistance to coronavirus infections.
Apart from the above-mentioned immunity boosters, various herbs, spices, herbal concoctions, Chinese herbal formulations and other traditional medicinal systems (Ayurveda, siddha and Homeopathy) have also shown promising outcomes in battling COVID-19.
There have been no reports to date that suggest COVID-19 is foodborne. However, it has been stated that the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through food is possible if the person handling the food is infected and then sneezes or coughs directly on the said food. The other routes of transmission might be through the consumption of raw meat from an infected animal or handling of contaminated food packages.
To minimise the risk of food contamination in food processing facilities, it is important to ensure that good hygiene practices are effectively implemented. In addition, it is crucial that all personnel involved in food handling (raw materials handling, processing, storage and distribution of the final food product to the consumer) follow stringent social distancing and sanitisation practices.
Furthermore, door, window and machine handles, taps and other high-touch areas should be frequently disinfected. The use of face masks, gloves, face shields and personal protective equipment (PPE) can also be beneficial in containing the spread of infection from human-to-human as well as from human-to-food.
Various research studies have proved that coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV and MERS are heat labile, becoming inactive at temperatures higher than 65ºC.3,4 Due to similarity between SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, a study conducted by Chin, et al. (2020) found that SARS-CoV-2 gets inactivated at 70ºC after incubating for five minutes.5 Therefore, it is stressed that no viruses survive this thermal treatment, hence it is crucial for consumers to refrain from eating any kind of raw meat and consume only well-cooked foods.
Nevertheless, we cannot deny the fact that animal-based foods are of higher risk as there are opportunities for the re-emergence of novel viruses from animal sources (slaughterhouses and seafood markets) to humans. For this reason, it is essential to reconsider our food system, which is highly reliant on animal-based protein sources. We need to make paradigm shifts towards sustainable food sources such as plant-based foods, lab-grown meats, alternative proteins from insects and microalgae, and recover bioactive compounds from food byproducts and waste.
It has been reported that SARS-CoV-2 can survive up to two and three days on stainless steel and plastic, respectively.6 This suggests that it may be possible for the virus to transmit from packaging material to hand, and subsequently to the mouth, eyes or nose. Hence, hand washing and sanitising should follow every time a package is handled.
There is an emerging need and research potential to design and develop active and intelligent packaging materials with antiviral and antimicrobial properties. Sportelli, et al. (2020) has reported that the packaging films coated with nanomaterials and nanoparticles (Cu, Ag and Zn) has significant potential to inhibit microbial contamination of food packaging surfaces and thus lessen the transmission of infections.7
The smooth functioning of all the operations involved in food production systems (farm to fork) is necessary to prevent global food shortages. However, the food industry is currently facing an unprecedented threat in terms of food security and food safety. It is evident from various epidemiological studies that COVID-19 spreads mainly through direct contact between individuals and with contaminated surfaces; consequently, those involved in the food chain have been at particular risk.
In order to ensure that food is available to all, it is imperative for all food processing businesses to strengthen existing food hygiene and sanitation practices, and introduce additional measures to protect food workers from contracting COVID-19. Strategies that balance the need for continuous production and protection of workers should be carefully designed.
Due to movement restrictions and lockdowns, transportation and shipping operations have become complicated, with food companies that import raw ingredients being badly impacted. An effective strategy to alleviate the crisis has been to strengthen and provide technical solutions to local producers and small food supply chains, as they are less restricted by lockdown regulations.
Overstocking of food by consumers, either due to panic buying or false information, may also result in food shortages. Some of the measures taken by China and Italy during the first few months of COVID-19 were to ban illicit trading, profiteering and hoarding of food products.
COVID-19 has created many unforeseen challenges for agriculturists, food manufacturers, scientists and consumers. Food industries need to strategically plan and ensure adequate supply of safe and nutritious food for everyone.
The possibility of COVID-19 being foodborne is negligible; however, there is still a need for advanced research studies to fully understand the possible transmission route of COVID-19 through food. Thus, there is a necessity to develop rapid and affordable methods for detection of SARS-CoV-2 throughout the food supply chain.
Until the world is fully vaccinated, there are opportunities for food technologists to design and formulate functional foods for different vulnerable groups in order to boost their immunity.
- World Health Organization [WHO] (2020). Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic. Geneva: WHO.
- Galanakis CM. (2020). The Food Systems in the Era of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic Crisis. Foods, 9(4), 523.
- Darnell MER, Subbarao K, Feinstone SM, Taylor DR. (2004). Inactivation of the coronavirus that induces severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS-CoV. Journal of Virological Methods, 121(1), 85–91.
- Leclercq I, Batejat C, Burguière AM, Manuguerra JC. (2014). Heat inactivation of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses, 8(5), 585–586.
- Chin A, Chu J, Perera M, Hui K, Yen H-L, Chan M, Poon L. (2020). Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions. MedRxiv.
- Van Doremalen N, Bushmaker T, Morris DH, Holbrook MG, Gamble A, Williamson B N, et al. (2020). Aerosol and surface stability of SARS-CoV-2 as compared with SARS-CoV-1. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(16), 1564–1567.
- Sportelli MC, Izzi M, Kukushkina EA, Hossain SI, Picca RA, Ditaranto N, Cioffi N. (2020). Can Nanotechnology and Materials Science Help the Fight against SARS-CoV-2?. Nanomaterials, 10(4), 802.
About the authors
Priyanka Sethupathy completed her Masters in Food Science and Technology at the Indian Institute of Food Processing Technology (IIFPT), functioning under the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, Govt. of India. Prior to this, she completed her Bachelors of Technology in Food Technology from TANUVAS, India.
Vidhi Gupta undertook a Masters of Technology in Food Science and Technology from the Indian Institute of Food Processing Technology (IIFPT), Ministry of Food Processing Industries, Govt of India. She has worked as a Research Associate in the R&D team at Nutriplanet Foods Pvt Ltd, India, with a focus on food nutrition and the development of functional foods for different age groups. Her aspiration is to pursue a doctorate research programme in Food Science and Nutrition.