A University of Arkansas (U of A) professor has received a $987,000 grant to research how restaurants can prevent customers from being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) awarded food scientist Kristen Gibson the two-year grant. The research is a multi-institutional effort to ensure that restaurant customers will not be exposed to SARS-CoV-2. The grant is one of 17 rapid response grants totaling $13 million from the USDA-NIFA.
Gibson is an associate professor of food safety and microbiology for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, which is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Gibson is the lead researcher on the project and will collaborate with other scientists from the Division of Agriculture, Clemson University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The food service industry came to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic as 60 percent of coronavirus-related job losses were in the food service industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some restaurants had cautiously reopened by July, which led to increasing jobs and sales, but customers have been slow to return amid fears they will catch coronavirus when they dine indoors.
The research plans to address gaps in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations for the food service industry.
While the FDA does set standards for restaurants to maintain safety, these standards mainly apply to “back of house” spaces that are directly related to food preparation and storage. FDA regulations do not address “front of house” spaces, including upholstery fabrics, carpets, and other furniture.
“Our research will focus on the ‘front of the house’ environment,” Gibson said in a statement.
The research team will focus on how long the virus lives on surfaces like furniture and how easily it transfers to people’s hands and eventually their noses and mouths. Gibson will use surrogate viruses to model how SARS-CoV-2 will behave under her testing conditions. The CDC will check her findings by comparing the surrogates against SARS-CoV-2, as they are the only institution involved in the study with sufficient biosecurity to handle the virus.
Gibson and her team hope to use their findings to create a national action plan for the FDA and other agencies to ensure safety in the food service industry. She also plans to create a fact sheet to identify appropriate disinfectants for industry workers.
“One of our primary goals is to whittle down the list to the disinfectants that will work best for the food service industry and develop a decision matrix based on surface type, active ingredient, ease of procurement and level of occupational health hazard,” Gibson said.
The research aims to help restaurants recover in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and plan for future outbreaks. Scientists from around the world have warned that another pandemic is inevitable, and Gibson’s research will be crucial to keeping restaurants economically stable when that happens.
“Learning how to address SARS-CoV-2 now will help us to know what to do next time,” Gibson said.