How did COVID-19 cause food poisoning cases to plummet?

How did COVID-19 cause food poisoning cases to plummet?

29 January 2021 | Roy Betts, Fellow

When the news of the impending COVID-19 pandemic first broke in early 2020, for many in the food industry the first concern centred on the virus’ mode of transmission.

Could it be transmitted through eating foods or even handling contaminated foods?

We were all soon reassured by organisations such as WHO, EFSA, FSA, CDC and FDA that the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) was highly unlikely to be transmitted through foods. It is a respiratory virus, transmitted through inhalation of infective virus particles that have been exhaled by an infected person. It was also apparent that other related Coronaviruses had never demonstrated a route of foodborne transmission.

However, as we pass the one-year point in the pandemic, COVID-19 has appeared to have had a drastic effect on reported cases and outbreaks of food poisoning caused by conventional food pathogens. This is despite manufacturers’ best efforts to control the virus at their premises by checking its presence and ensuring cleaning regimes are effective against SARS-CoV-2.

… the reports show that in 2018 there were 10,910 statutory notifications of foodborne disease.

One year on – examining the data

Let’s consider the figures. Regular data on disease in England is collected and made available by Public Health England through what’s known as Notifications of Infectious Disease reports (NOIDs). Any mention of ‘notifications’ throughout the rest of this article can be seen as analogous with ‘cases’. It’s via these NOID reports that we see a tremendous decrease in cases of foodborne disease.

Looking at data from week 1 to 51 of 2020, the reports show that in 2018 there were 10,910 statutory notifications of foodborne disease. In 2019 this dropped to 8,756 - but in 2020 this virtually halved to just 4,682 notifications. That’s a 57% drop in cases in just two years!

Did we see this same effect elsewhere in the world?

The Australian Government has produced a full report on the effects of COVID-19 on notifiable diseases in Australia. It shows that between January and June 2020, Salmonellosis notifications were 17% lower than the five-year average of previous years - while STEC had declined by 56% and Listeriosis by 63%.

So it’s not just in the UK where we’ve seen an unusually large drop in foodborne disease. In fact, there are similar reductions seen throughout Europe and the USA. The question is why have we seen this effect? And are these numbers truly representative or purely an artefact caused by the pandemic as it impacts the reporting of illnesses?

Well, there’s two ways to look at it.

The bright side: cases have genuinely lowered

On the positive side, there may be a real decrease in food poisoning cases. This could be explained by several factors. For a start, fewer cases of foodborne disease may have been caused by an increase in everyone’s personal hygiene. The constant message from the Government to wash our hands (using the correct technique) and the supermarkets’ attempts to gently coax consumers towards using the hand sanitiser may well have made everyone much more hygienic; it’s hoped that this will have stretched to their food preparation hygiene. Also, the various lockdowns and the closure of eateries will have resulted in more people preparing meals at home – potentially further preventing illness (especially if home hygiene had increased).

The not so bright side: cases haven’t decreased, just gone undetected

On the negative side, reports of food poisoning may be decreasing for other reasons. The regular messaging of how busy healthcare providers were (and still are) may have caused people that were suffering more minor foodborne illnesses to avoid seeing their doctor. The perceived risk of contracting COVID-19 outweighed any potential relief received following treatment for food poisoning. Also, reports from the USA indicate that the number of food premises inspections performed by regulatory officers during the pandemic has fallen. This will undoubtedly have been mirrored in many other countries, perhaps allowing vital hygiene failures to go unrecognised. Remote auditing is at least one approach that could offset some of this risk.

Consumer behaviours

In Europe, a fascinating report charts the impact of the pandemic on consumer food behaviours. The report shows that food consumption in virtually every food category increased during the pandemic. It also reveals that consumers were more likely to buy pre-packaged food with less cross-contamination risk, and indicates that they were more likely to check ‘use by’ dates.

What can this tell us? Well in England and Wales up to the end of August 2020, reported Campylobacter infections were down by over 8,000 and Salmonella by nearly 2,000. These are very large decreases. But why these occurred is still a difficult question to answer. In the future, as the data is better analysed and we see what happens to foodborne illness as we emerge from the pandemic, we will undoubtedly know more.

In the end it will probably be a mixture of the various changes that have been highlighted here, and includes consumers:

  • having better personal hygiene
  • eating home-prepared foods more regularly
  • opting to purchase pre-packaged foods more often, and
  • being less likely to visit their doctor after contracting milder illnesses.

However, it’s possible that the decrease we’ve seen will not be fully carried through into future years. So, in the near future, we should not be surprised to see increases in reported food poisoning above 2020 figures. We must remain vigilant and continue to ensure the utmost care is taken in hygienic food productions and preparation. This can be easier said than done unless a comprehensive approach is taken.

Need food hygiene information and advice? Get in touch and find out how we can help you. As well as routine microbiological analysis to determine levels of microorganisms in your food and drink products, we can also identify what the organisms are and investigate the source of any contamination problems. If you have any questions, please drop me a line.

Roy Betts

About Roy Betts

Roy Betts is a Fellow at Campden BRI, an independent international food consultancy and research organisation based in the UK.

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