Yesterday the agency issued this statement from FDA Commissioner Dr Stephen Hahn, MD:
“The United States understands the concerns of consumers here domestically and around the world who want to know that producers, processors and regulators are taking every necessary precaution to prioritize food safety especially during these challenging times. However, efforts by some countries to restrict global food exports related to COVID-19 transmission are not consistent with the known science of transmission.”
“There is no evidence that people can contract COVID-19 from food or from food packaging. The U.S. food safety system, overseen by our agencies, is the global leader in ensuring the safety of our food products, including product for export.”
Expert says unknowns in situation give rise to fears
Larisa Pavlick, head of regulatory and compliance for the United Natural Products Alliance who had a long career as an FDA inspector, said the risk for contamination for dietary ingredients is low. But she said she could empathize with consumers and officials who are concerned, because the data on transmission risks is still coming in.
“I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but there is really nothing to compare with COVID-19 right now because it is not behaving like other viruses” she said.
Pavlick said there is a long history of contamination in the handling and shipping of food. But the risks of those past vectors are known and can be controlled for.
“Hepatitis, for example, which is a viral infection, can be transmitted from people to packaging,” she said. “Norovirus, which is what the people on the cruise ships get, can be transmitted that way, too, and often is transmitted by contaminated buffets.”
Pavlick said when she was inspecting dietary supplement facilities there were only a few instances where incoming materials had been flagged for special attention.
“Ginseng, for example, at one time was at high risk for contamination with herbicides and pesticides. And male enhancement products, I’d always sample those to test for adulteration, though that is a different topic,” she said.
FSMA controls address some of the concerns of the moment
Pavlick said new controls put into place under FSMA and its Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) address many of the concerns that importers might have with COVID-19.
“All materials would go through a kill step,” she said. That could consist of the application of heat, steam or other methods.
“Then you control your facility and your employees for how that material is handled after that,” she said.
“I have seen some crazy things, like people letting powder flow over their hands while it’s going into a blender. Or in a supplement company’s video of how great their facility is showing an executive letting capsules run over his hand in a bottling line,” Pavlick added.
While the data is still coming in, health officials have satisfied themselves that the particles of the virus that causes COVID-19 do not persist on surfaces in large enough numbers for long enough to present much of a risk of infection. The primary vector remains being in close proximity to an infected person for a length of time.