By Andy Muirhead – Company Microbiologist, ALS Food & Pharmaceutical (UK)

It has been well documented over the last few months, that there has been significantly fewer reported outbreaks of foodborne disease, which may be one small crumb of comfort to come out of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Two months ago, I warned of a potential “perfect storm” of events such as staff shortages, disruption of the supply chain and fatigue which could potentially have led to an upsurge in foodborne outbreaks, but in reality the opposite seems to have occurred.

Why has this happened? Initially I thought that it was just because everyone’s attention was distracted by the Coronavirus outbreak, but there have been demonstrably fewer recalls and food poisoning incidents in the last 2 months. It may be down to a culmination of lots of different ways in which the food industry and individuals have reacted to the pandemic.

In response to the initial panic buying and food shortages in early March, many manufacturers scaled back on the wide range of products which they would normally manufacture and concentrated production on core items, producing larger quantities over longer production runs. These core items will have had tried and tested microbiological risk assessments already carried out, and as such these products may potentially carry a much lower risk than the less frequently manufactured bespoke or artisan products. The food industry has responded exceptionally well during the pandemic and the manufacturers have by and large coped with the unprecedented surges in demand.

Perhaps the most significant factor in reducing the number of outbreaks is that for the last eight weeks restaurants and cafes have been closed and people are cooking for their own households at home. A survey in Holland showed that 1 in 10 Dutch people said they had started eating healthier diets because of more time for preparation and cooking due to home working. Nearly half of men and women agreed that they had better attention to hygiene during cooking, which may give us a very simple answer to the question of why we are seeing fewer foodborne outbreaks…..Perhaps we are all just washing our hands more often!!!

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