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What we know so far about coronavirus and food

Coronavirus has been headline news in the media for several weeks now, but remarkably little has been said about the outbreak in association with food and drink, here in one place is what we think we know so far:

Food supply – Matt Hancock the Health Secretary has confirmed that “the Government has supplies of the key things that are needed, and, within food supply, we are absolutely confident that there won’t be a problem there.”

Mr Hancock said on BBC Question Time on Thursday that the Government was in discussion with supermarkets about the issue. “We are working with the supermarkets to make sure that, if people are self-isolating, then we will be able to get the food and supplies that they need,” he said.

But supermarket sources have told the BBC they had not discussed delivering food to homes.

An executive said: “Matt Hancock has totally made up what he said about working with supermarkets. We haven’t heard anything from government directly.”

They added that sales of cupboard basics such as pasta and tinned goods had “gone through the roof”, and that supermarkets are working “round the clock” to restock shelves and keep up with demand. We are using processes and staffing levels we set up in case of a no-deal Brexit.”

Some have suggested that Mr Hancock deliberately lied, others that the statement was a well-intentioned assurance to help keep the lid on “panic buying”. What is more certain is that it is simply too early to say if there will be food and drink supply disruption.

Food prices – The cost of food is determined by a wide range of variables including climate/weather, exchange rates, import tariffs/trade costs, levels of demand and supply, and commodity market trading. What we can say with some certainty is that it is too early to predict an outcome from a coronavirus outbreak with any reasonable degree of accuracy, because (right now at least) the level of infection and its geography is entirely unpredictable.

If there are issues with food price it is likely to be generated by one of five situations:

1. Production challenges – where production is impacted through a shortage of labour in an infected area
2. Transport restrictions – where the movement of goods is restricted by authorities seeking to ring-fence areas to avoid spread of infection
3. Trade imbalance – where UK production becomes surplus because of consumption falls elsewhere in the world
4. Commodity markets – where markets are affected by trader sentiment regarding future sales
5. Abnormal Demand – in the retail sector causing product shortage in the whole food supply chain

There is limited evidence of all five currently, and we will be monitoring matters closely in the weeks ahead.

Food safety – The virus can be passed on through eating food, but this is less likely if the food has been heated. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that all fruit and vegetables should be washed to reduce risk.

The biggest risk for consumers is in handling fresh produce, packaged goods and served meals that have been touched, or coughed and sneezed upon, by an infected person.

The UK FSA has yet to make formal comment on the subject, but the Food Safety Authority of Ireland issued a warning this week that it was possible food workers “could introduce the virus to the food they are working on by coughing and sneezing, or through hand contact, unless they strictly follow good personal hygiene practices”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that standard recommendations to reduce exposure to and transmission of a range of illnesses are maintained. These include:

• proper hand hygiene
• cough/cold hygiene practices
• safe food practices
• avoiding close contact, when possible, with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing
Food workers must wash hands:
• before starting work
• before handling cooked or ready-to-eat food
• after handling or preparing raw food
• after handling waste
• after cleaning duties
• after using the toilet
• after blowing nose, sneezing or coughing
• after eating drinking or smoking
• after handling money

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