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Sept. 22, 2021
By Fred MillerU of A System Division of Agriculture@AgNews479
Related PHOTOS: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmWFvCaQ
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas researchers are working to answer one of the leading
questions on Americans’ minds as the country struggles to recover from the ordeal
of COVID-19: Is it safe to eat out?
Food scientists Kristen Gibson and Adam Baker are investigating whether food service
industry disinfecting practices are adequate to protect their dine-in customers from
Gibson, an associate professor of food science and microbiology for the Arkansas Agricultural
Experiment Station, is leading a multi-institutional research effort to ensure that
restaurant dining rooms do not contribute to the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that
causes COVID-19. The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and
Agriculture awarded a $987,000 Rapid Response grant to Gibson last year to fund the
two-year research project.
Gibson is the lead investigator in the effort that includes collaborators within the
Agricultural Experiment Station, Clemson University and the Centers for Disease Control
The Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas
System Division of Agriculture. Gibson also has a teaching appointment in the Dale
Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.
Testing the tests
Gibson said the goal of the two-year project is to provide scientific evidence that
the COVID-19 precautions employed by the foodservice industry protect their customers.
Protection against COVID-19 in restaurants relies primarily on Food and Drug Administration
food safety standards. But Gibson said those measures apply mainly to “back of the
house” spaces where food is handled — kitchens, food storage and dishwashing areas.
“Our research is aimed at the ‘front of the house,’” said Baker, a post-doctoral research
associate who is heading up the research in Gibson’s lab. “These are the dining rooms
and related areas where the diners are.”
The target areas of Baker’s research include the surfaces that diners touch and the
hands that do the touching. For a study published recently, he placed a known amount
of a surrogate virus on subjects’ hands. The surrogate is a bacteriophage called Phi-6,
a harmless microorganism that mimics the structure and persistence of SARS-CoV-2.
Baker identified the most reliable tests for recovering consistent virus samples from
hands. He also found that timing was critical. Immediately after application, 83 percent
to 87 of the virus surrogate was recovered from test subjects hands. When tested five
minutes later, recovery dropped to 51 percent to 55 percent. The variation in the
percentage of recovery depended on the method used to recover the virus from the subjects’
hands. After 10 minutes, virus particle recovery dropped to 32 percent to 38 percent.
“Virus recovery from human skin can depend on several factors,” Baker said. It can
depend on the virus, the amount initially applied to the skin, the size of the virus
droplets, skin characteristics, temperature, and relative humidity.
Gibson said the next step is to test transfer from hands to surfaces.
“We know that transfer from human to surface happens when an infected person sneezes,
coughs or even speaks,” Gibson said. “These actions expel droplets containing the
virus onto nearby surfaces. Or a person may transfer the virus first to their hands,
and then touch a surface.”
They will also test transfers from surfaces to humans, as when a person touches a
surface that an infected person has just contaminated.
They are testing different surfaces commonly found in restaurant public areas, including
metal, fabrics, wood and other materials. They are even testing carpeting. “We had
to determine what materials were most relevant and what ‘holes’ exist in other studies,”
Stainless steel makes an excellent control to compare results from other studies,
Gibson said. “A lot of research has already been done on recovering viruses from stainless
steel because of its prevalence in food preparation areas. It’s not that common in
the dining areas, but it makes a good comparison to see how our work fits into other
Baker said they are also testing different media in which SARS-CoV-2 transfers from
human to surface and back to human. Various organic substances can affect how long
the virus survives on exposed surfaces.
“We use an organic media that is basically artificial saliva,” Baker said. Saliva
is the most common means of transfer as humans spew virus-bearing droplets.
Gibson said other media must be tested as well, including a substance that mimics
fecal material. “This has a lot to do with hand hygiene habits like washing hands
after using the bathroom.”
Baker said they aim to measure how long the virus persists at each stage when transferring
from nose or mouth to hand, to surface, to another hand and back to another person’s
mouth or nose. They also want to determine the best timing and methods for recovering
virus particles from each stage.
“We are also looking at sequence transfers,” Baker said. “How many surfaces can you
touch before the virus is no longer detectable.”
Gibson said the time element is important because tests in multiple labs have already
shown that tests can’t detect SARS-CoV-2 after 30 minutes.
That begs the question of whether COVID-19 can still infect a person even after live
virus particle levels are too low to be measured. “Based on methods we have in use,”
Gibson said, “we can detect the virus down to five particles under ideal conditions.”
She said the surface type makes a difference. In earlier research, she found it harder
to recover particles from surfaces like carpeting than from steel or plastic.
“Then the issue is, does it matter?” Gibson said. “If we can’t detect it, does it
still transfer to people at infectious levels?”
The NIFA-funded project is halfway through its two-year research effort. Once completed,
Gibson said the experiment station and the other participating institutions would
integrate their findings to develop a national action plan and disseminate it through
the Association of Food and Drug Officials, the FED, other state and federal agencies,
and hospitality organizations.
The AFDO and the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management support the project
and will help disseminate their findings, Gibson said.
Gibson said the team developed a fact sheet to help the food service industry use
U.S. EPA List N (https://bit.ly/3k8U7Oy) to find appropriate disinfectants for use in their businesses. “There are currently
570 products listed,” she said. “Many of those, but not all, are tested specifically
Gibson said researchers whittled down the list to the disinfectants that will work
best for the foodservice industry and developed a decision matrix based on surface
type, the active ingredient, ease of procurement and level of occupational health
The fact sheet is available from the Division of Agriculture: https://bit.ly/AAES-COVIDdisinfectantlist.
To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural
Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch.
To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit https://uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen
agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption
of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative
Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work
within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas
System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension
and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity,
sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran
status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative
Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
Media Contact: Fred MillerU of A System Division of AgricultureArkansas Agricultural Experiment Station(479) email@example.com