FrozenFoodsBiz BUZZ

Salmon Trade Snagged in ‘Dragnet’ as Covid-19 Cases Spike in Beijing

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By John Saulnier, FrozenFoodsBiz Editorial Director

Here we go again. As a cluster of over 100 new Covid-19 cases has been recorded in Beijing, the finger is being pointed at yet another wholesale food market as the source of the outbreak. This time it’s not domestic bats or other wildlife that’s causing anxiety, but rather farmed salmon raised in Europe and elsewhere. Reportedly the virus was present on chopping boards used to cut imported salmon at the Xinfadi Market in the southwestern corner of the capital city.

There is something very fishy about this story, which has caused fearful consumers to shun heart-healthy, Omega-3 rich salmon. It just does not pass the smell test when it comes to science and food safety. Not surprisingly, seafood product exporters to the PRC, frozen food experts and others are alarmed about the removal of salmon from store shelves and menus, and halt on imports.

The PRC imports upwards of 80,000 tons of salmon per year, much of it from Norway, Chile, the Faroe Islands, Canada and Australia. In 2019, around 23,500 tons from Norway worth NOK 1.6 billion was purchased by buyers in China. So far this year 9,600 tons of salmon have been sent to the People’s Republic.

Concerned about being locked out of a lucrative market for no legitimate reason, the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) has been quick to reassure consumers and buyers of Norwegian seafood about the safety of its salmon and other fishery products in light of unsubstantiated rumors swirling regarding the source of the recent viral uptick in Beijing. It insists that “the coronavirus does not affect seafood safety” and “there are no known cases of infection via contaminated food, imported food or water.”

John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute in the United States, declaring categorically that there is absolutely no connection between seafood and Covid-19, and has urged members of the trade association and consumers “not to be misled by sensational reports.”

He has issued a compilation of statements from 14 global public health professionals and agencies addressing food and coronavirus, one of which is from Dr. John Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, reads as follows: “The idea it hitched a ride on fish is highly implausible.  I mean it is absurd.  I can’t see any plausible scenario where this virus rode in on a salmon.”

Netizens in China have weighed in by poking fun at the unfounded speculation by commenting on a humorous chopping knife-wielding salmon cartoon (pictured above) message posted at the popular WeChat social media site and instant messaging platform. Original text accompanying the artwork [though something may be lost in translation] read: “I am a really confused and angry salmon. Who am I? Where am I? What’s wrong with me? You say I have Covid-19, but I have no lungs. Don’t blame me.”

AFFI Brings Scientific Sense to the Table

On a more serious note, the American Frozen Food Association (AFFI) has provided information on what it currently knows regarding science and the spread of coronavirus, as follows:

“The overwhelming scientific consensus is that SARS-CoV-2, unlike norovirus and hepatitis A, is not transmitted by the consumption of potentially contaminated foods. The virus is unlikely to be in food, but even if it were, SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by respiratory, not gastrointestinal routes,” said former NoroCORE™ Scientific Director and top food virologist Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus. ”While we do freeze viruses to store them, there is no science that points to the link between surface contamination of food and the contraction of Covid-19.”

“While SARS-CoV-2 has been recovered from surfaces, particularly those in health care settings, the risk of contracting Covid-19 from these surfaces is likely quite low. This is especially the case when food handlers use proper sanitation and hand hygiene,” said AFFI food safety expert Dr. Donna Garren. “This is a good reminder, as more people are preparing food at home right now, to follow the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s basics of safe food handling: clean, separate, cook and chill.”

In addition, AFFI also stated:

  • There is no evidence for the spread of SARS-CoV-2 through consumption of food or no known cases of foodborne Covid-19. According to multiple public health agencies around the world, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), coronaviruses are primarily spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets and aerosols.
  • While many viruses can survive freezing temperatures, SARS-CoV-2 does not cause foodborne illness. Like other viruses, surfaces can become contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 by contact with an infected person. To counteract this possibility, a two-pronged control approach is used: frequent and proper hand washing, and surface disinfection. These measures are recommended by the CDC and remain important steps to prevent exposure.
  • The frozen food industry’s top priority today and every day is food safety. As a preventative measure, frozen food companies are increasing the rigor of their sanitation and hygiene practices and instituting many other strategies to prevent disease transmission amongst their essential workforce. These measures are beyond what is required by law or regulatory guidance during this pandemic.

World Awaits Independent Investigation in Wuhan

Lastly, yours truly would like to point out that while it has been speculated that a wet market in Wuhan, China may be the source of the original contagion that as of June 16 has been attributed to the deaths of 438,221 people and linked to  8,061,689 confirmed Covid-19 cases globally, there is no direct proof that this site is Ground Zero of the outbreak, though the Wuhan area is very likely where initial human-to-human transmission of the bug took place. The world is still waiting for a much needed independent investigation into this matter to clear the air of uncertainty concerning the the pandemic’s roots.

Already in January The Lancet, a highly regarded peer-reviewed medical journal, cast doubt on contentions that the coronavirus outbreak originated at the wet market by noting: “Exposure history to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale market served as an important clue at the early stage, yet its value has decreased as more secondary and tertiary cases have appeared.”