COVID-19 and its Effect on Food

COVID-19 has affected every part of our daily lives and has stretched Canadians to their limits.  This pandemic has not only affected our health, the way we work, and the way we socialize but has also impacted the way we eat.  COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is a virus that belongs to a large family of coronaviruses and causes severe respiratory illness.  The first outbreak originated from the seafood and animal market in Wuhan City, China in December 2019.  By spring 2020, the world was in a pandemic.

Pandemics have serious negative effects on the economy, and the food industry is not exempt.  The food chain – from field to consumer – was valued at over 8 trillion US dollars in 2020. In Canada alone, the food industry is estimated to reach 145 billion Canadian dollars in 2021.  As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, production, transport, retail sale, and consumption have been adversely affected.  Consumer demand has increased, and food supply has decreased.    Production has been suspended or even stopped.  The world must rethink and better plan how to handle this necessary industry and prevent any future occurrences of a food crisis as a result of new variants.

COVID-19 and Cost

The food industry involves five sections: agricultural production, handling, processing, distribution, and consumption.  The first stage, production, is government-regulated with mandatory health standards and frequent inspections.  The handling of produce after harvest is not regulated and relies on voluntary maintenance.  Processing and distribution, whether from the facility to a retail store or a retail store to a consumer, is not mandated whatsoever.

Most consumers don’t think about how the food gets to the store shelf.  With so many stages involved, any delay has a ripple effect to the end. Countries that relied on seasonal employees for planting and harvesting produce now had to face a worker shortage as these individuals were either unwilling or unable to go to work. 

In food processing facilities, standards guided operations to help preserve the employee’s health and safety.  Even with the added requirements for cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfection, outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred in many plants.  As a result, production was suspended or temporarily discontinued. Closing these plants also affected other sections of the food supply chain.  Farmers forcibly had to slaughter livestock as they had no place to sell them.  Retail stores were required to limit purchases.

With movement restrictions in place, food demand by consumers increased as they were unable to go out to restaurants and now prepared more meals at home. Greater consumer demand for foods combined with limited availability resulted in higher costs.  According to Canada’s Food Price report, food costs spiked by 5% during COVID-19.  This increase equates to $58 extra dollars each month.

Changes in Consumer Behavior

With the interruption of the daily routine, many people found themselves bored and stressed by the quarantine.  They gravitated towards consuming high-energy foods as they produce serotonin, a hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.   Numerous studies have been done around the world on food consumption during this pandemic.  The results found that many people experienced weight gain due to decreased activity and increased consumption of sugars and carbs.  Basic products, such as flour, became difficult to find on store shelves as the interest in home-baking rose.

That is not to say that only carbohydrate and sugar-rich foods increased.  In Italy, studies revealed an increase of 33% in vegetable consumption, 29% for fruits, and 26.5% for legumes.  In the United States, 43% indicated they consumed more fruits and 42% more vegetables. The main takeaway is that consumers were eating more.

With the fear of lack of food availability, consumers would stockpile purchases of products with a long shelf life (toilet paper?! I still can’t figure that one out).  Dried or canned foods, pasta, and frozen food purchases increased as they were convenient for daily cooking and would last a long time should food shortages continue.

Food and the Spread of COVID-19 

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One of the concerns of COVID-19 is the possibility of transmission through food.  The survival time of SARS-CoV-2 varies in different environments such as plastic, steel, and cardboard.  The arising concern is that animal tissues might be a source of transmission.  It is important to note that there is no reported instance of COVID-19 through food consumption to date.

A recent report (2020) indicated that the acidity in the stomach prevents food from spreading any coronavirus (1). In addition, the virus does not spread directly through livestock and agricultural products. Further information provided by WHO (World Health Organization) indicates that it can only transmit through direct contact or respiratory droplets.

In contrast with these claims, in June 2020, the largest wholesale market in Beijing, the Xinfandi market, was shut down as coronavirus was detected on the board used for cutting up salmon.  Officials stated the surfaces of equipment were contaminated by infected people and not the food.  Authorities tested around 30,000 samples, and the results were all negative.

According to the CDC, it is possible to get COVID-19 by touching a food or food package that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.   The Government of Canada suggests washing fruits and vegetables under running water.  They also recommend that you should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before and after handling raw food and food packages.  Furthermore, cooking food kills coronaviruses.  Further to this, the EU Commission has described various possible routes of transmission of the virus via food.  One of these is the consumption of raw/uncooked meat.

Preventing Disease in the Future

Ongoing research aims not only to increase the shelf life of food products but also to retain food safety.  One such study involves antimicrobial food packaging. Implementation is slow, however, as most packaging changed the chemical properties of food. Technology is emerging for the controlled release of antimicrobial compounds through nanotechnology and antiviral edible packaging.  Progress is again slow, more than likely due to the costs to develop and implement the packaging. 

It is astounding to note that the extract from plants such as cranberries, pomegranates, blueberries, and grape seeds are antiviral super giants that can prevent the entry of a virus into a host body.  Packed full of antioxidants and phytoflavinoids, these superfoods are the top choices of doctors and nutritionists.   Not only do they lower the risk of heart disease and cancer, but they are high in natural nutrients.  These natural compounds are key elements used in the ongoing development of controlled antiviral packaging. 

The final result is that COVID-19 has changed the food industry.  We are now looking at every aspect of the food cycle – from farm to table. From the way we produce food to how we eat it.   

1(Rizou et al., 2020).  Rizou, M, Galanakis, I M, Aldawoud, T M S, et al.  (2020).  Safety of foods, food supply chain and environment within the COVID-19 pandemic. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 102:  293 – 299

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