Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Reducing Food-borne Illness Incidents?

Data suggests that the pandemic safety measures could be reducing the amount of food-borne illness cases.
July 6, 2020

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are starting to become evident as food businesses begin to reopen in certain counties and jurisdictions. The pandemic has had serious effects on the food industry, including substantial financial losses due to lockdowns. Even though there have been many challenges that the food industry has faced this year, recent data has revealed an apparent silver lining to the situation.

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has reported a significant drop off in the number of food-borne infections within Finland in the past few months. According to the institute, only four suspected food-borne illness outbreaks were reported between March and May. This number is much less than the average of 18 outbreaks which were reported in the previous years. The institute suggests that the health and safety measures that have been put in place during the pandemic can be playing an active role in reducing food-borne illness outbreaks.

How safety measures prevent food-borne illness

Food-borne illnesses are caused when food is contaminated with harmful microorganisms which are then consumed. These food-borne pathogens can be bacteria, viruses or parasites and they can infect food through biological contamination, chemical contamination, physical contamination and cross-contamination.

In order to combat the spread of harmful microorganisms and reduce the risk of food-borne illness, proper hand washing and cleaning and sanitizing protocols must be followed. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in hand washing and cleaning and sanitizing – both of which appear to be having a significant effect on the reduction of food-borne infections.

Improper preparation of food and food handling by staff are also common contributors to food-borne illness outbreaks. The temporary closure of restaurants and other dine-in food businesses eliminated that potential source of food-borne illness outbreaks. Food businesses are slowly reopening with strict regulations in place and with health and safety (including food safety) top of mind, which can be contributing to the decrease in food-borne illness outbreaks.

The current closures of certain types of food businesses can also be playing a role in the reduction of food-borne illnesses. Under current COVID-19 restrictions, buffets are not permitted to operate within Canada which has effectively reduced the risk of food-borne illness which can come from food being served in this manner.

There is a higher risk of food-borne illnesses stemming from buffet-type services, where food can easily become contaminated when individuals serve themselves. The food also has a higher risk of being kept in the Temperature Danger Zone* where harmful pathogens can multiply rapidly in high-risk foods. With these businesses currently being closed, the potential risks are mitigated.

*In Manitoba, the Temperature Danger Zone is 5°C – 60°C (41°F – 140°F). In all other provinces and territories in Canada, it is 4°C – 60°C (40°F – 140°F).

Decreases observed in other countries

What is being observed in Finland is similar to what is occurring around the rest of the world. Australia and the United Kingdom are noting decreases as well, but the data for Canada has yet to be released. Statistics on food-borne illness rates in Canada during the past few months will help to solidify whether the health and safety measures in place during the pandemic are curbing food-borne illness outbreaks. In the meantime, food businesses and food handlers are encouraged to continue enforcing the proper hand washing technique, cleaning and sanitizing frequently and following the COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.