JURIST Guest Columnist Surbhi Kapur, a lawyer and Ph. D student in International Food Law and Policy at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in New Delhi, India, addresses growing concerns in the international community over the safety of imported food during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic...
With food emerging out as a heavily traded commodity internationally, the majority of the nations around the world have become melting pots of civilization, leading to the increasing interconnectedness of the global food system and complexity of the supply chains. With the long-winded food supply chains there exists information asymmetry between the consumers and the food they consume. This puts consumers at a significant disadvantage with respect to assessing the quality and safety of imported food.
Concomitantly with the expansion of world food trade, the world population has become more vulnerable to the outbreak of diseases caused by tainted food and the risk of exposure to it. Such risks, which have a direct bearing on our health and well-being, could emanate from agents and sources including, inter alia, microbial pathogens, illness-causing bacteria, pesticide residues, food additives, growth hormones, zoonotic diseases, environmental toxins, etc. History is replete with alarming incidents of food-borne illnesses or communicable animal diseases attributed to pathogens or deadly viruses emerging from human contact with live animals. These include: Asian Flu in 1957-58 from a mutation in wild ducks which resulted in no less than 1.1 million dead, H5N1 Bird Flu in 1997 from Chinese geese with at least 455 dead, SARS in 2002-03 from wild animals (perhaps bats, civet cats) with at least 774 dead, and H7N9 Bird Flu in 2013 from poultry at live bird market which resulted in about 610 dead. For this reason, food safety concerns about food imports have far-reaching implications including lowering the demand for certain imported food products, changing the patterns of international food trade and limiting market access.
It bears emphasis that recently the egregious shape of food safety in China has been witnessed world over when the outbreak of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been, though allegedly, linked to a wet market in Wuhan, China. Resultantly, the world is left helplessly supine. The agri-food sector is faced with the critical global challenge of ensuring the safety of articles of food, whether traded internationally or domestically. Global citizens remain confounded with many questions regarding, inter alia, the safety of the articles of food imported from different parts of the world or whether the food or food packaging may have a probable nexus with the transmission of COVID-19.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been at the vanguard of food safety. While declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, it has published precautionary recommendations as well as advice on practicing good hygiene during the handling and preparation of food, such as washing hands, cooking meat and poultry thoroughly and averting possible cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods. In light of the turmoil caused by this unprecedented pandemic, lawmakers and food regulators across the globe are following the footsteps of the WHO. While closely monitoring the evolving COVID-19 outbreak, they have been dispelling the information asymmetry that has been baffling the consumers and the market for food.
In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), established under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, constituted a Committee of Experts (CoE) to scrutinize the possibility of presence of coronavirus in imported food articles. The following measures have been initiated by the FSSAI:
- An advisory dated March 6, 2020 was issued by the FSSAI stating that the CoE has opined that there is no conclusive evidence of the food-borne transmission of coronavirus in the articles of food imported from countries infested with the virulent pandemic. It has also affirmed that any such article of food is safe for human consumption.
- A press release accompanied the advisory stating that the predominant route of transmission of COVID-19 is human-to-human. It also clarified that properly cooked poultry and meat products are safe to consume. As a precautionary measure, it advised practicing good hygiene and avoiding the consumption of raw or undercooked meat as well as unprocessed food products.
- Another advisory dated March 24, 2020 has been published as a guidance for the Chefs and the Food Handlers. It deals with issues in the nature of, inter alia, preparation, pre-preparation, procurement of vegetables and other cooking items, handling currency.
- A Guidance Note and Press Release dated April 15, 2020 regarding Food Hygiene and Safety Guidelines for Food Businesses during Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic has been released.
In the wake of the sudden spike in cases of COVID-19 in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), established by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938, released a new guidance for the citizen consumers and the food and beverage industry on March 23, 2020. On an earlier occasion, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had advised that there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food. It has been advised that the maintenance of food safety should be continued by adherence to social distancing and stringent hygiene practices (i.e., diligently washing hands and surfaces, separating raw meat from other foods, cooking to the right temperature, etc.) when handling or preparing foods. Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) stand in confirmation with the FSSAI and FDA on the absence of any definitive evidence regarding foodborne transmission of COVID-19. FSS has also issued COVID-19 Guidance for food business operators and their employees. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) too issued a statement upholding that food is not a probable source or route of transmission of the virus. Some risk management advice has also been issued on March 30, 2020, by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, Germany.
Together with other food regulators, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has also affirmed that no reported cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the contamination of food. While providing the information on the role of food workers in prevention thereof, the FSAI has explained the significance of proper hand washing procedures. It has also been an endeavor of FSAI to explicate the extra measures that the food businesses may take while managing the transport and delivery of food. The canteens in ‘essential services’ including hospitals, and other frontline facilities, have been advised to observe respiratory etiquette.
The food safety regulators across the globe, thus, proclaim that there’s no evidence of any reported cases of COVID-19 being transmitted through food. However, they also maintain that there’s still a possibility of COVID-19 being transmitted through food when an infected person sneezes or coughs directly on it. Furthermore, a conspectus of the aforesaid directives and advisories would lead to the conclusion that the world population needs to underscore the importance of consistent and collective action in these troubling and turbulent times. Being fully aligned to ensuring safe and wholesome food for human consumption requires concerted global efforts. Prompt and timely sharing of cross-country information should be espoused to preserve the standards of health, safety and welfare of the global citizens.
For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.
Surbhi Kapur is a lawyer based in New Delhi, India, and pursuing a Ph. D in International Food Law and Policy from the University School of Law and Legal Studies (USLLS), Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University (GGSIPU), New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters in Law (LL. M.) from the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University of Law, Hyderabad, India with a specialization in international trade and business law. She has more than six years of professional experience, working as an academic, and a legal researcher with the High Court of Delhi, Central Information Commission (CIC), and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (IBBI).
Suggested citation: Surbhi Kapur, (Un)Certainty of Food Safety in the times of COVID-19, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 18, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/surbhi-kapur-food-safety-covid19/.
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