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.…