We had lots of interest in our blog on coronavirus and food safety. You were all interested in understanding how the virus might affect our food safety.
Meet the author of this popular blog, our expert and senior food microbiologist, Cathy Moir. Cathy explains why we’re interested in food and the pandemic, her work on microbiology and the importance of food safety.
Food safety has been a popular theme during the pandemic. Why do you think people are so interested in this topic?
I think people are always concerned about food and want to understand what role food has to play in the transmission of coronavirus (which is none).
Perhaps some confusion has come from the fact people are advised not to touch their eyes, nose and mouth. That is why they might think eating the virus can be a problem. However, the virus needs to get into your respiratory system. As our mouth is close to our nose, you wouldn’t want to put your potentially infected hands close to your mouth. Plus, we breathe through our mouth too.
What work do you usually do?
What I enjoy about my role as a food microbiologist is the variety of things I do and the fact I am solving problems. Some days I spend time providing advice over the phone to industry colleagues – this can be a small family business or a multinational food company.
Our projects might be desktop. This is where we gather information and interpret it for a client who wants to know more about a potential food related microbiological safety or spoilage hazard.
In the laboratory, we troubleshoot food spoilage problems and run studies to assess product safety. We are very good at making a food product or replicating a factory process in the lab. We can put microbes in foods and see how they behave in those formulations or processing conditions. This work supports manufacturers to ensure any changes they make to a food process or formulation (i.e. the recipe) doesn’t result in the food being unsafe or susceptible to spoilage.
Ultimately, our work supports industry and government in matters relating to food safety hazard identification, characterisation, risk assessment and management of the microbiological safety and stability of food.
How can your work help the current pandemic?
My advice on food safety can help ease concerns about the role of food (or lack of it) in transmitting coronavirus. It is important to get the message across that the coronavirus is a respiratory virus, not a gastrointestinal virus. They infect people very differently.
We can still provide practical advice to people about how to minimise risk to them and their families when handling food. We can also ease concerns by informing people of the science. And the science is telling us there’s no evidence you can catch the coronavirus by eating it.
Did you always want to be a scientist?
Yes, I always knew I wanted to do something science related. I worked as a laboratory assistant in a university for a few years before I got a technician role in food microbiology at CSIRO. Then I worked my way through the ranks while studying part-time to become a scientist.
Food microbiology is something that chose me – I landed in the job and, as it turned out, I loved it. I like seeing the cause and effect in science and using this to solve problems.
I am a sucker for knowledge. Each time I do something for a client I am drawing on lessons from years of observations and experience; it’s certainly not something you can learn from a textbook.
Thanks for your expert knowledge, Cathy.