International Authoritative Interpretations on the Relationship between COVID-19 and Food Safety
Discussion on the Future of the Food Industry in the Post-Epidemic Era
COVID-19 epidemic has become a common challenge facing the whole world, and countries around the world, including China, have invested huge resources in epidemic containment. The prevalence and containment of COVID-19 are closely linked to all works of life and various aspects of economic and social development. The food industry is no exception. On the one hand, though WHO and the competent authorities of some countries have claimed that COVID-19 is unlikely to spread through food, people are still doubtful of the comments. On the other hand, as the outbreak has swept the globe, the food industry should be prepared for disruption and be able to ensure it can supply the global community. Therefore, it deserves food scientists’ deep pondering on how should the food industry seek opportunities in risks and pursue innovation-driven development in the post-epidemic era.
On March 21, International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST) held an Extraordinary Scientific Roundtable Discussion jointly with Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST), which was attended by nearly 20 internationally renowned experts and more than 100 specially invited representatives from the food industry, including Dr. Peter Ben Embare from WHO, Dr. Chen Junshi, Chief Advisor from China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment (CFSA), Dr. Ding Gangqiang, President of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention under National Institute for Nutrition and Health, Dr. Patrick Wall, First Chair of the European Food Safety Authority and member of the Ireland COVID-19 National Emergency Response Team, Dr. Rao Pingfan, former President of IUFoST, Dr. V Prakash, President Elect of IUFoST, Dr. Fereidoon Shahidi, President Elect of IUFoST Scientific Council President-elect and Professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Dr. Liu Xiumei, Dr. Luo Yunbo, Dr. Wu Yongning, Dr. Xie Mingyong and Dr. Shi Xianming, who are Fellows of International Academy of Food Science and Technology (IAFST), and Dr. Li Ning, Vice President of CIFST and Deputy Director of CFSA. They shared forward-looking and authoritative viewpoints by online speeches and interactions. The Roundtable serves as a prelude and introduction to the 2020 International Forum on Food Safety and Health, which is scheduled to be jointly held by IUFoST and CIFST in July this year.
Viewpoint 1: There is no evidence of COVID-19 being spread through food
Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, Unit Head of Monitoring of Nutrition and Food Safety Events, International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), WHO, outlined the confirmed cases of COVID-19 across 167 countries, states and regions, and expressed his appreciation for China’s effective measures to contain the epidemic.
“COVID-19 is not food-borne but of animal origin (a point presented by scientists from WHO). Although viral RNA has been found in stool samples from infected patients, the virus is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets or close contact with infected patients, instead of foods.” Dr. Chen Junshi, a member of Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) and the Chief advisor of CFSA, pointed out that according to previous experience in battling SARS and MERS and the progress of the evolving situations of COVID-19 in China, there is no evidence of COVID-19 being spread through food. US CDC and ECDC also said, there is no evidence that food items imported from China pose a risk of spreading COVID-19.
Viewpoint 2: Massive food storage highlights the issue of nutritional imbalance
Ding Gangqiang, Vice President of CIFST and Director of Nutrition and Health Department, CHINA CDC, who is working on his health and nutrition survey at the front-line, said that during the outbreak, communities have adopted close-off management, which has pushed families to store massive amount of foods at home, leading to nutritional imbalance among the public. Since the close-off management, the dietary structure and life styles of the residents in Wuhan have been significantly changed, with only limited kinds of foods to choose from. Research shows that the consumption of red meat like pork, beef, and mutton has dropped. Residents can manage to maintain, or even increase, the previous level of energy consumption, while their consumption of vitamins, minerals, quality plant protein and Nmur3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid are insufficient.
Viewpoint 3：The outbreak poses three challenges to the world’s food industry
Challenge 1: Severe influence on restaurants and SMEs
In his speech about the current challenges facing the Europe’s food industry, Patrick Wall, First Chair of the European Food Safety Authority and Professor of Public Health at University College, Dublin, who served in Ireland COVID-19 National Emergency Response Team, stressed that the food distribution, transport and restaurant sectors would suffer great losses. Firstly, people are worried that foodstuff of animal origins may contain the virus, leading to severe impacts on the whole production chain. Secondly, many restaurants can’t remain in business. In a word, the catering industry has suffered greatly. Additionally, the outbreak has also blown the business of many SMEs, such as dropping income, survival difficulty and cost pressures. In particular, this spreading of the virus has cut off the food exports from China to Europe, such as the garlic.
Dr. Luo Yunbo, Honorary Vice President of CIFST and Director of Research Centre for Special Food, China Agricultural University, thought that due to the long industry chain, the prepackaged food sector was facing difficulties that couldn’t be solved by themselves. Unlike logistics enterprises, restrictions of labor forces and upper-stream materials supplies constitute the major challenge facing the food companies. Additionally, the unpredictability of emergency events also highlighted the strength, weakness and split within the food industry. After the outbreak, there will be a new round of industrial reshuffle, presenting the Matthew effect.
Challenge 2: Food safety and sanitation will face higher requirements.
In face of the sudden outbreak, the awareness of food safety and sanitation among the consumers has been rapidly lifted. Dr. Chen Junshi, a member of CAE, pointed out that food industry had multiple challenges to tackle: the consumers’ confusion about whether the fresh food products and food packages will spread the virus, the cleaning and disinfection problem among food manufacturers, the retailing sector and restaurants. These problems will surely lead to higher requirements in enhancing food safety and sanitation.
It should be stressed that all food manufacturers, involving food-makers, retailers and restaurants, must follow the general hygiene regulations and the WHO’s five keys to food safety. Dr. Patrick Wall also mentioned that the consumers’ worries about the virus spreading through animal products would also impact the whole industrial chain. Stricter disinfection measures should be adopted in the packaging process to guarantee the food safety.
Challenge 3: Surging demands on food e-commerce platforms bring supply pressures, consumer communications and labor shortages.
Liz Duffy, Vice President of Global Omnichannel Compliance, Walmart mentioned that as a response to the outbreak, many organizations have been implementing urgent measures and temporary inspections to better support the society and the consumers, which has led to a surge of online orders and created pressure in various parts of the supply chain. The US has seen a significant growth in the business orders of foods with reduced or low moisture or long shelf lives. Food makers have adjusted, once again, their facilities for different products to adapt to the increased orders. Additionally, the delivery person and sanitation of delivery facilities are also important aspects of the e-commerce management, so as to avoid contact during the delivery process. Non-contact delivery orders of fresh foods are also rising in the US.
When handling orders from restaurants or online suppliers, the delivery persons are unable to contact the consumers, making communication a major problem and making it more difficult to realize non-contact delivery. Additionally, considering that most of the information about outbreak are from social media, instead of reliable sources, it is worth exploring how to ensure consumers to get accurate information in a scientific manner. Another challenge is the labor shortage. Take the Walmart for example. It is now tackling the issue of possible infection among its workers in the future. Walmart has to improve its disease report procedures, so as to provide an effective report channel for those employees with illness. An important aspect is to tackle the labor shortages through technological improvements, recruitment and training of new employees.
Viewpoint 4: Seek opportunities in risks--- the potential opportunities facing the food industry in post-epidemic era
Opportunity 1: The food industry’s importance for a nation’s emergency supports is underscored.
During the outbreak, the food industry, especially the instant food sector and special food sector, has played an important role in guaranteeing national supplies. During this period, most people are required to self-quarantine themselves at home, and instant noodles and frozen foods have become their first choice. According to statistics by ECdataway, a commercial big data service provider, on the T-mall, the overall sales of instant noodles has achieved a 57% year-on-year growth, the dumplings and wontons 78%, instant hot-pot 144%, meat products 264% and Tangyuan (Glutinous Rice Balls) 60%. At the same time, the FSMP (Food for Special Medical Purposes) is also playing an increasing role in the treatment process as an important nutrient source for patients.
Opportunity 2: The key to tackle the challenges facing the food industry lies in the intelligent equipment and their informationization.
The outbreak has posed multiple challenges to the food industry, among which the labor shortage is the toughest one facing the food-makers to resume their production. Comparatively, those enterprises with smarter and more informationized equipment have presented strong resilience in fighting the sudden outbreak. In addition, the outbreak has also facilitated the market seizure for those companies taking the internet and online platform as the main sales channel. Therefore, after this round of industrial reshuffle, the survivors will become more sensitive about the market demands and new technologies, and those equipped with AI technologies and internet supports will surely display sharper edge in the competitions.
Opportunity 3: “Improving immunity” provides a new growth point for the special food sector
Before any cure or vaccine is available, the most effective self-protective approach for human is their autoimmunity. Food has been serving as an important carrier to satisfy the consumers’ needs for nutrients and health, while the special food plays a key role in preserving their immunity function. Just as Dr. Luo Yunbo said, “improving immunity” will become a new growth point for the special food sector and will bring a stable and long-lasting customer base. However, improving immunity is never a goal that can be achieved with one single step, and it also defies any shortcut.
Opportunity 4: The senior citizens’ health has become an important aspect of the industry’s innovation and development.
During this outbreak, the immunity issue of the elderly people aging 65 and above has become the most highlighted point. Dr. Ding Gangqiang pointed out that research had showed that the elderly people failed to notice the risks in their diet or to take measures to change or control them; for example, their preference of salty flavor and the excessive consumption of salt and oil remain. How can we expect to effectively control them in time when they are not properly noticed? These factors may post threats to the health of the elderly people. Additionally, the ever-growing number of elderly people has become a general trend facing China or even the world.
In his summary, Dr. Fereidoon Shahidi, IUFoST Scientific Council President-elect and Professor of the Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada), pointed out that the outbreak of COVID-19 has become a global challenge confronting numerous countries across the world. However, challenges always come with opportunities. From the setbacks facing the food industry, we are also having more and deeper reflections on the future development of the industry, such as the significance of food safety and sanitation, intelligent equipment and its informationization. Besides, we also realized the bright prospects of the special food that can boost immunity. Notably, long-time working from home during the outbreak may also lead to illness. For now, the common challenge that we share is about how to tackle the outbreak and what we can draw from it.