Hi everyone! I know I said I’d stop constantly posting about COVID-19 on the blog, but honestly, it seems to be what most people are curious about right now, myself included. We are in a weird spot in the US – the worst is ahead of us, and understandably, many people want to prepare. After looking into what data exists out of personal interest on the topic, I thought I would do a post about food safety and coronavirus.
I am not an infectious disease expert, but I am FDA FSMA Food Safety and Quality Assurance Certified Individual, and I have my MPH. Most often on this blog, I write my posts based on extensive review of scientific literature and expert authority. In this post, I tried my best to synthesize the existing evidence on this emerging topic, and sprinkle in some basic principles from my background in food safety and public health, so please, if I make an “I” statement about what I think is best, feel free to ignore it, and focus on the cited facts, as those sentiments are just my guesses based on my background. I try my best to stay in my lane and stick to sound science, and feel like I may be swerving a little here, particularly because there is so little data on COVID-19 out there right now, but please note that this is an evolving situation, so what we know this week compared to next may change the accuracy of parts of this post. Which brings me to my disclaimer…
Disclaimer: This article was written on March 26, 2020. This information may no longer be present after this date. COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving situation. Please check linked sources for further up-to-date information. Also, because there is so little known about the virus, scientists have made inferences and extrapolations from similar virus. As we continue to understand COVID-19, information may very well change. See https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus for more information.
First, can coronavirus be transmitted through food? How is COVID-19 transmitted?
Before narrowing in on food, let’s talk about what we know about viral infections in general, and what we know about transmission of coronavirus thus far.
As alluded to in the disclaimer above, COVID-19 is a relatively new and novel disease, and we are still learning about it. The science is rapidly emerging and evolving, so the best we can do for now is synthesize the evidence we have, and extrapolate from information we know from studying other viruses.
When it comes to COVID-19, we know the ways in which the virus can be transmitted, however we don’t know precisely how the virus is actually transmitted, and how much each route of transmission is contributing to the spread of the illness.
But generally, there are three major routes of transmission possible for respiratory viruses: the first is via respiratory droplets, which are essentially droplets that are produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs. When these infected droplets land in the mouth or nose of another person, or if they are close enough to the droplets to inhale them, they risk possible exposure to the disease. The CDC has stated this is the primary route of transmission (although again, we quite know the level of each transmission route for sure).
Additionally, COVID-19 can be transmitted by physical contact with virus-infected inanimate objects, meaning it is possible that the virus gets onto a surface, stays on the surface for a period of time, and then could spread to a human if the human picked up the object, and then touched their eyes, nose, or mouth.
COVID-19 can also be transmitted through the air. A recent study published in New England Journal of Medicine found SARS-Cov-2 (the virus that causes the disease COVID-19) could last in aerosols for up to three hours. So, if the conditions are right, and the virus becomes airborne, it could stay in the air, and infect people who inhale it.
A study in China has also shown that COVID-19 was found in feces of infected individuals, and in recovered people, even after their nasal swabs came back as negative for COVID-19, up to 13 days after being discharged from the hospital.
The risk of transmission of COVID-19 from fecal matter is unknown. It’s not presently clear how much of the virus is shed in stool, and whether the virus found in stool is infectious. The CDC has stated that there have been ‘no reports of fecal-oral transmission to date,’ but (and this is my own personal skeptic scientist chiming in, so feel free to ignore this) I am not sure anyone has really been formally tracking transmission mechanisms of sick people.
The WHO has stated that the risk of catching COVID-19 from feces is low, and that ‘while initial investigations suggest the virus may be present in feces in some cases, spread through this route is not a main feature of the outbreak,’ and are continuing to monitor the situation.
I am interested to see more data (as it emerges) on the viral potential of COVID-19 in poop. Because, well, poop is everywhere. Either way, even though fecal-oral transmission does not seem to be a major concern (at least based on what we know right now), the possibility of fecal-oral spread of COVID-19 presents another great argument for vigilant hygiene practices. Wash your hands, friends.
That’s a lot of ways to get sick. So what does that mean for food? Can COVID-19 spread through food?
The answer is, once again, we can’t say things for certain, but most experts think food consumption is not a major route of transmission. According to the CDC, there is ‘no evidence’ of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.
The CDC further explains that the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person via respiratory droplets, which are essentially droplets that are produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
When these infected droplets land in the mouth or nose of another person, or if they are close enough to the droplets to inhale them, they risk possible exposure to the disease, etc etc.
Basically, from what we know, ingesting potentially virus-contaminated food and water does not seem to be a concern. Ingestion of the virus does not seem to infect the digestive tract.
That said, some have expressed concern that “the possibility of the respiratory tract becoming infected during chewing cannot be completely ruled out,” meaning if, say, you chew with your mouth open and inhale some of the virus, you may not be as safe as if you had just swallowed it without inhaling. While this may seem far-fetched, as the authors say, it hasn’t been ruled out yet.
Now, let’s talk about eating take-out food. It does seem possible that an infected person can contaminate food or food packaging with SARS-CoV-2 if they prepare or handle the food with dirty hands, or if they sneeze or cough infected droplets. Because individuals can be asymptomatic carriers of the disease for up to 14 days, it is not entirely unfeasible that a food worker would be contagious in the workplace.
However, as mentioned above, even if you ingest food that has the virus on it, existing evidence indicates that it’s unlikely that you would get sick.
Let’s say that food workers were not practicing good hygiene and/or sneezed on your take out box, and then you picked it up and touched your face. In this case, it is, hypothetically possible that you could become infected.
However, good hygiene practices, such as hand washing, glove-wearing and avoiding coughing and sneezing into food or on boxes, as well as frequent food-prep station sanitation practices, should be effective to prevent this from happening. Opting for contact-free delivery or pick up is another wise choice, as it prevents potential person-to-person transmission
But, again, from what we know so far, eating a food with the virus on does not seem to be a major threat. The major threats seem to be inhaling respiratory droplets from an infected person, or by touching an infected surface and touching your face, or by potentially inhaling aerosolized virus particles.
What about food packaging? Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Should I disinfect my cart?
It is, hypothetically possible to get COVID-19 by touching a virus-infected object or surface at a grocery store, which may even include a recently-contaminated container (like a jar of peanut butter), or a grocery shopping basket, and then proceeding to touch the eyes, nose, or mouth.
A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus is detectable for up to 3 hours in aerosols, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and 2-3 days on stainless steel and plastic.
It’s worth noting that this was a lab environment, and different levels of humidity impact viral transmission rates. Still, it is hypothetically possible that you could pick up the virus if it is sitting on your grocery basket, or on your plastic container, or the credit card console, etc, and then you proceeded to touch your face.
There have been zero studies to date on the viral load in grocery stores (although now that I’m typing this out, wow, that’d be interesting…NIH can I get some funding for a study?) to confirm this, but since it can’t hurt, for now, sanitizing carts, grocery baskets, and plastic surfaces you interact with when getting groceries isn’t a bad idea.
It’s also possible that the virus is airborne, meaning that droplets can travel through the air. This presents an additional concern in places like grocery stores and pharmacies.
Proper ventilation (meaning stores open windows, etc, and circulating air) may help. Practically physical social distancing while you shop, by keeping 6 feet distance from all other shoppers and employees, is also a wise idea.
What about imported food?
According to the CDC, the risk of spreading COVID-19 from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated or frozen temperature is low.
Based on the study mentioned above that found that the virus lasts maximum 3 days on surfaces, it does seem unlikely that, even if a food package was contaminated, that it would arrive in a short enough window of time to remain virulent.
How can I make my food safer?
In addition to being extra vigilant about hand hygiene before preparing or eating food, wiping down common surfaces (such as grocery store carts) with sterilizing wipes, practicing social distancing while shopping for food, and opting for contact-free food delivery and pick up when getting food prepared out of the house, there are additional measures you can take if you want to be extra cautious.
For example, there are a couple of things you can do in-the-kitchen if you’d like to reduce your risk of getting any illness. Generally good practices for food safety apply to COVID-19: it’s always a good idea to wash your hands, avoid cross-contamination, frequently sterilize your food prep tools and surfaces, and wash your produce. It can be tempting to skip washing your produce, but doing so increases the risk of ingesting not only pathogens, but also pesticides.
Now, let’s talk more specifically about COVID-19. Technically speaking, if your food is packaged and bagged (such as frozen vegetables), it should be safe. When it comes to fresh produce, it’s a wise idea to wash your hands, and then wash the produce (and maybe wash your hands again).
If you are still feeling anxious, you could remove the skin of the produce (ie, peel it). And if you have any remaining doubts, you can also cook your produce. Cooking foods at 63°C can reduce the viral contamination of a food by 10,000-fold.
So, if you are concerned about, say about say, a loose carrot or potato, etc, you could either carefully wash your hands and peel off the skin (where droplets are most likely to be), or cook the food at a high temperature.
What is the government doing to protect the food supply and implement good food safety and coronavirus practices?
The FDA and CDC have laid out a set of guidelines recommending individuals employ social distancing (maintaining 6 feet distance from one another) to all peoples, including those in food production facilities and restaurants. They have also recommended vigilance when it comes to hygiene practices, including “frequent and proper hand-washing and routine cleaning of all surfaces.”
Additionally, the CDC recommends all people stay home from work if they are sick (Although I do worry that hourly workers without paid sick leave may not have the luxury to make that choice unless they are seriously ill, which is a concern as we know the virus can shed from asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people).
Furthermore, food production facilities, farms and restaurants must follow local clean protocols, which may vary from county to county and state to state.
FSMA (The Food Safety Modernization Act) requires food facilities to use EPA-registered sanitizing products for their cleaning and sanitizing practices, and the EPA has registered a list of disinfectant products for COVID-19 as part of their emerging viral pathogen program.
Take Home: Food Safety and Coronavirus
We are still learning so much about COVID-19. Existing evidence suggests ingestion of food is not a major route of transmission.
There have been no studies that measure transmission rates risks from eating out or getting food delivery, but, hypothetically, if the workers are not infected and practicing excellent hygiene, and you get your food via a contact-free delivery or pick-up, then, technically there should be no problem. Again, this assumes that no one interacting with the food, bags, or boxes is carrying the virus.
But, considering people can carry the virus asymptomatically for up to 14 days, or not feel very sick form it, being vigilant about wiping down containers, bags, and boxes with a disinfectant, and washing your hands after disposing of them and before eating food, at the very least, can’t hurt.
Personally, I’d also avoid self-serve food establishments (like buffets and DIY froyo or salad bars) for the time being, simply because the serving utensils in these settings get a high volume of contact from the general public.
When it comes to grocery shopping, sanitizing things like carts and shopping baskets is a wise idea, as is practicing social distancing towards other shoppers and employees. Washing your hands after shopping is also advisable.
And once you’re in the kitchen, be sure to wash your hands of course, and wash your produce. Peel or cook it if you have additional concerns.
Well, that is all for now. I hope you found this article about food safety and coronavirus to be useful or somewhat interesting. Again, I welcome comments or corrections, if any new data emerges or any experts out there has any insight into what I’ve discussed here.
Have a great day! Millie loves you.
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