Can you catch coronavirus from contaminated food? Frozen chicken wings spark virus fears

Connor Parker
·4-min read
Chicken wings carrying COVID-19 were discovered in Shenzhen China, sparking alarm among officials. (Getty)
Chicken wings carrying COVID-19 were discovered in Shenzhen China, sparking alarm among officials. (Getty)

Frozen chicken wings carrying COVID-19 have been discovered in China, sparking fears from officials of an outbreak, but just how much of a threat is food contaminated with coronavirus?

The frozen chicken wings were discovered in the southern city of Shenzhen and is one of several incidents of food contaminated with COVID-19 China has had to deal with this week.

What happened?

The frozen chicken wings were imported from Brazil, the local government said on Thursday.

Local disease control centres tested a surface sample taken from the chicken wings as part of routine screenings carried out on meat and seafood imports since June, when a new outbreak in Beijing was linked to the city's Xinfadi wholesale food centre.

A fish market in china. (AP)
A fish market in china. (AP)

Shenzhen's health authorities traced and tested everyone who might have come into contact with potentially contaminated food products, and all results were negative.

"It is hard to say at which stage the frozen chicken got infected," said a China-based official at a Brazilian meat exporter.

What are the other cases?

The discovery in Shenzhen came a day after traces of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 were found on the packaging of frozen shrimp from Ecuador.

The very first outbreak of COVID-19 was linked to a seafood market in the city of Wuhan, with studies suggesting the virus came from on sale animal products.

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Coronavirus was also discovered outer packaging of imported frozen seafood that arrived at Yantai port from Dalian in northeast China.

New Zealand reported its first COVID-19 case in more than three months on Tuesday, with health officials suspecting the infection came from a freight shipment.

One of the people infected works at a cool store that processes frozen foods from overseas.

However, deputy PM Winston Peters, speaking on ABC TV, has suggested that the outbreak could be due to a quarantine breach.

Enhanced coronavirus testing in Christchurch, New Zealand. (AP)
Enhanced coronavirus testing in Christchurch, New Zealand. (AP)

Is there any real threat of catching coronavirus from food?

Infection from contact with a frozen virus through imported food “is still not to be considered a major route of infection and still not an event that should substantially affect policy at the public health levels”, said Eyal Leshem, a scientist at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel.

Li Fengqin, who heads a microbiology lab at the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment told reporters in June the possibility of contaminated frozen food causing new infections could not be ruled out.

In the case of the contaminated frozen shrimp from Ecuador, it marked the first positive result after 227,934 samples were tested, so the risk is very low.

Viruses can survive up to two years at temperatures of -20C, but there is no strong evidence so far the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can spread via frozen food, according to the World Health Organization.

The virus is unable to replicate on the surface of food or packaging.

This means it will only become weaker over time, so it is likely by the time an imported frozen food that carried COVID-19 appeared on supermarket shelves it would be much less infectious.

Scientists haven’t ruled out the possibility of people carrying coronavirus being able to pass contaminated droplets onto food.

Among all the ways of catching coronavirus, transmission from food is considered very low.

What is the UK government’s stance?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) says it is very unlikely you can catch coronavirus from food, adding that cooking food will kill the virus.

On imported foods, the FSA says the risk of contamination is still very unlikely because of the tight laws around businesses have to follow in order to bring goods in the UK.

Staff who handle food are being asked to ensure a level of hygiene above and beyond their usual amount to bring the risk down to a bare minimum.

In supermarkets, the FSA are asking people to only touch food you want to buy and to thoroughly wash their hands before entering the shop.

Again the FSA emphasises the threat of catching coronavirus from any food, whether frozen in a shop or served fresh over a counter, is very low.

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