Food-borne Illnesses Declining Due to COVID-19 Pandemic

Data suggests that pandemic safety measures are contributing to a decline in food-borne illness incidents.
July 9, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had serious effects on the food industry, with many food businesses sustaining significant financial losses due to temporary closures. Despite these challenges that the pandemic poses, there appear to be some positive effects that were not anticipated.

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has noted 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 is significantly less than previous years where there was an average of 18 suspected outbreaks being reported. The institute indicates 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.

Why is there a decrease?

In order to understand why this is happening, it is essential to understand what causes food-borne illness outbreaks in the first place. 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. Food can become contaminated in different ways – through biological contamination, chemical contamination, physical contamination and cross-contamination. One of the main ways to prevent the spread of harmful microorganisms and reduce the risk of food-borne illness is through proper hand washing and cleaning and sanitising protocols. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in hand washing which appears to be having a significant effect on the reduction of food-borne infections. Cleaning and sanitising is being conducted more frequently in businesses as well.

Food-borne illness outbreaks can be related to improperly prepared food by food businesses or improper food handling by staff. The temporary closure of restaurants and other dine-in food businesses eliminated that potential source of food-borne illness outbreaks. With food businesses now reopening with strict regulations in place, health and safety (including food safety) is top of mind. This can also be contributing to the decrease in food-borne illness outbreaks.

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 (5°C – 60°C) where harmful pathogens can multiply rapidly in high-risk foods. Under current COVID-19 restrictions, buffets are not permitted to operate within Australia which has effectively reduced the risk of food-borne illness which can come from food being served in this manner.

Similarities observed in Australia

What is being observed in Finland is similar to what is occurring around the rest of the world. In Australia, the rates of Campylobacter and Salmonella infections have decreased since the lockdown measures were put in place. The Food Safety Information Council released a report card on Australia’s food safety record, which indicated that these specific infections have halved in comparison to the previous two years. This is promising news for Australians, who see 4.1 million cases of food-borne illness every year.

As food businesses continue to reopen throughout Australia and a ‘new normal’ emerges, it remains to be seen whether food-borne illness rates will continue to decline. In the meantime, food businesses and food handlers are encouraged to continue enforcing the proper hand washing technique, cleaning and sanitising frequently and following the COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.