Frequently Asked Questions About Food During the COVID-19 Pandemic
What precautions should you take while preparing food? Does cooking kill the virus? Should you wash reusable grocery bags? Find answers to your most pressing concerns about food and the pandemic from the best experts.
Groceries and Take Out
While there is currently no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food, shopping for food is another story. There are multiple instances where transmission can be likely, such as touching a shopping cart, basket, or the inability to practice social distancing. According to a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine, aerosol and surface transmission of the virus is plausible. Results indicate the virus can remain viable and infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces for up to days. So surfaces such as door handles, shopping carts, and basket handles end up being high risk surfaces. Ultimately, the biggest risk while grocery shopping is coming in contact with those who may be infected.
There are a few steps that can be taken to reduce your risk while grocery shopping:
- Use hand sanitizer when entering stores, and wash hands and/or use sanitizer as soon as possible after leaving.
- If sanitizer is not available, consider wearing disposable gloves before touching the shopping cart or basket. Remove the gloves by turning them inside out and disposing of them after leaving the store.
- Plan your trip in advance and make a list of what you need so you can get out of the store quickly.
- Wipe down all surfaces of the cart or basket you touch.
- Try to practice social distancing guidelines as much as possible while shopping.
- Avoid touching surfaces or items unnecessarily and avoid touching your face.
- Offer to bag your own groceries to limit contact with others.
Currently, there is no published evidence that shows people have contracted the virus from touching food or food packaging. In an NPR piece, Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center of Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School said, "While it is possible to contract the virus (from contaminated surfaces), the majority of transmission is probably going to be from respiratory droplets, which you're exposed to when you're around other people.” In other words, the risk of contracting the virus from food packaging is low. However, steps such as wiping down non-porous containers like glass or cans with disinfectant agents and handwashing after putting away all food packaging, can be taken to limit transmission.
Experts agree that disinfecting and washing every item you bring home is not necessary. David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says the virus begins to lose infectiousness as soon as it lands on a surface. “After 24 hours, the vast majority of virus is no longer infectious”, he says. Even if respiratory droplets landed on the exact same spot of a surface or box you touch, you would have to get enough residual virus on your hand to start an infection, and then transfer the virus to your face. The bottom line is to continuously wash your hands after unpacking groceries, before cooking, and before eating to minimize your risk of exposure.
Although there is no current evidence of reusable grocery bags transmitting the novel coronavirus, Meghan May, a professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England, says reusable bags should be handled more carefully to minimize the risk of transmission. “One would want to err on the side of caution here because we know [the virus] can survive on many different types of surfaces,” she says. “We should probably assume that it can be transmitted that way until someone demonstrates that it can’t.” She recommends shoppers to either carry their groceries straight from their cart to their car or use paper bags. If shoppers prefer to use reusable bags, she recommends to wash the bags before and after each use.
According to the CDC, the virus is not likely to be transmitted through food itself. Any risk would more likely come from close contact with the worker delivering the food. Rasmussen tells Forbes, “There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted by eating food. I imagine that if this is possible, the risk is extremely low,” since food is not inhaled into the respiratory tract. Even if contaminated food makes its way to the digestive tract, she says “high acidity, low pH environments such as the stomach can both disrupt the envelope and degrade viral proteins and RNA that are other key components of the virus particle.” While much is still being learned about the virus, it is safe to say the main risk people should be focused on is avoiding contact with COVID-19 positive individuals, not food.
Food Safety – Washing and Cooking
While the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the World Health Organization all say that food is not known to be a route of transmission of the virus, practicing good food safety habits is more important than before. “Now is not the time you want to get a foodborne illness and need to seek medical help from doctors who are overtaxed managing COVID-19 patients,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ director of food safety research and testing. “The same things you do to prevent infection with bacteria that cause foodborne illness, such as E. coli or salmonella, would protect you against any virus,” says Rogers. Chief among them – handwashing. Before preparing or eating, it’s important to wash your hands with clean water and soap for a minimum of 20 seconds. In addition, be sure to avoid cross contamination by separating raw meats from other foods by using separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables. Other steps include, cook to the right temperature using a food thermometer to ensure safe cooking temperatures and refrigerate perishable foods promptly.
While there is currently no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food, it can certainly survive on food for a period of time. Jack Caravanos, clinical professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health told VICE, “moist, semi-solid foods are a wonderful medium for microbes and can boost the longevity of the virus”. He also mentioned uncooked foods such as deli meats, salads, and fruits can be susceptible to the virus if exposed, handled, or prepared without proper food safety precautions. Foods where the virus may have greater longevity, where the virus can last up to four days, include those with tougher exteriors and possibly disposable exteriors, such as bananas, and other fruits and vegetables.
Pandemic or no pandemic, it’s always good to rinse fresh fruit and vegetables with water to remove dirt, debris and pesticides, and reduce levels of foodborne germs. It is unnecessary and possibly even harmful to take so called ‘extra precautions’ by washing produce with soap or diluted bleach solution. Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., a distinguished professor in the department of food science at Rutgers University, told Consumer Reports ingesting soap residue could lead to nausea, stomach upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. Rinsing meat and poultry is also strongly discouraged, because bacteria can easily spread to kitchen surfaces, causing cross contamination and ultimately lead to foodborne illnesses. As always, the USDA warns handwashing after handling raw meat is necessary otherwise anything you touch could become contaminated.
There is still much to be learned about the novel coronavirus, including a temperature-based cut-off for inactivation. While there is no current data on exact temperatures needed to kill the virus, it will act similarly to other coronaviruses, says Urvish Patel, medical advisor for eMediHealth. Viruses in general are heat-sensitive, and coronaviruses in particular tend to survive for shorter periods of time at higher temperatures, Patel says. Until more is discovered about the virus, proper temperature guidelines for cooking from the CDC should be followed. In specific, 145°F for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb; 160°F for ground meats, such as beef and pork; and 165°F for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey.
Like many other foods, the virus can certainly survive on raw meats and animal products, however, cooking them at the right temperature can kill off the virus. The New England Journal of Medicine study indicates the virus can survive in air particles and certain surfaces, but does not include information on how long it remains viable on food. As a general rule, the WHO recommends to avoid consumption of raw or undercooked animal products. To add, raw meat should be handled with proper food safety precautions to avoid cross contamination with uncooked foods.
Health and Nutrition
Maintaining a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables is always good practice. According to the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine, studies have shown that fruits and vegetables high in nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E can boost the immune system. Examples of excellent sources include sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, oranges, broccoli, spinach, and more. Other foods high in vitamin D and zinc can also help strengthen immune response, such as fortified cereals, nuts, beans and lentils.
Based on research related to foodborne illnesses and other viruses, Ben Chapman, food safety expert at North Carolina State University, tells Live Science washing may remove “90 to 99 percent of [any contamination].” Since there is currently no evidence that the virus spreads through food, the washing guidelines remain the same as before the pandemic. Simply wash produce with running water. “We really can’t get much better than that by adding [anything] to the water,” Chapman said. “That’s kind of as good as it gets.” It’s also important to note that the temperature you wash the produce in doesn’t matter. Some are drawn to wash their produce in warm or hot water, in hopes that the high temperatures can kill the virus, but killing any virus requires water at such high temperatures, that it would actually cook or damage the produce and burn your hands. Chapman said warm water is fine, “but you’re not going to get any further removal than you would if it was just cold.”
Currently, no data supports the use of any supplement to protect against COVID-19. It’s important to understand that no supplement, diet, or lifestyle changes other than physical distancing, proper hygiene and food safety practices can protect you from the virus. Evidence that supplements improve immune function in populations only exist in populations that are truly malnourished, a rare case in developed countries, explains Michael N. Starnbach, a professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School. “People can be more susceptible to diseases when they are severely malnourished, but it doesn’t mean that replenishing higher-than-necessary amounts of vitamins and nutrients in someone is going to make their immune system work that much better," he says.
In an effort to reduce frequent visits to the supermarket, the Center for Science In The Public Interest recommends stocking up on healthy staples like beans, chickpeas, frozen or canned fish, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, and whole grains like oats, brown rice, and whole grain pasta. There are also plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that can last a while as long as they are stored correctly. Examples include apples, pears, cabbage, carrots, garlic, beets, onions, and so on. If you are unsure about how long certain foods can be stored, the FoodKeeper app, developed by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection service, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute, is a handy tool that can help maximize the freshness and quality of items.
As the virus spreads, the food system and supply chain will be strained and tested in ways not seen before. Challenges have emerged in terms of logistics involving the transport of food due to and may result in increased levels of food loss and waste, especially with highly perishable products. The closing of restaurants, hotels, and schools, leading to staggering amounts of food waste are causing a strong imbalance in the supply chain. The Times reports waste in colossal amounts with the nation’s largest dairy cooperative dumping close to 3.7 million gallons of milk each day and chicken processors smashing 750,000 eggs every week. Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, says farmers and manufacturers are working to redirect their distribution channels, normally destined for restaurants and other retail operations, to grocery stores. He also assures the FDA has taken steps to provide flexibility with packaging and labeling requirements in an effort to reduce food waste.
Shortages of labor due to an increasing number of workers falling ill are also disrupting the supply chain, directly effecting the production and processing of food. According to Yiannas, food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the country, assuring if one facility closes, other facilities can fill the demand.
While the FDA claims there are no nationwide shortages of food or reported disruptions in the supply chain, The New York Times reports the food supply is strained as the virus spreads. The spread of the virus through the food industry is expected to leave many workers ill, causing disruptions in the production and distribution of certain products. In fact, several meat plans have been shutting down as more workers fall ill. Christine McCracken, a meat industry analyst at Rabobank tells the Times, “you might not get what you want when you want it”. She added, “Consumers like to have a lot of different choices, and the reality is in the short term, we just don’t have the labor to make that happen.” So while shortages are expected, industry leaders insist it’s an inconvenience rather than a major problem that they hope will resolve once the workforce has recovered.