COVID and Food Safety
This article was written at my request by my scientist friend Rachel Poole. She holds a PhD in Psychology & Neuroscience, and completed several years of postdoctoral training in chemosensory science at a non-profit research institute in Philadelphia. She’s not an expert in public health or virology, but is an expert in interpreting research, and is very skilled at explaining scientific information to non-scientists. The tips that Rachel shares in this article will mitigate your risk of viral infection from food, but it’s up to you to balance how much risk you are comfortable with. You’ll see my takeaways at the end of the article, and a list of simple actions you can take to decrease your risk without sacrificing the food you need to stay strong and healthy.
The problem –
You may have concerns related to the transmission of COVID-19 via foods. Perhaps you are not shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, and instead are eating more canned, packaged, and processed food than you have in the past. First, that is FINE. Second, recognize that there are multiple reasons for this: (1) Due to necessary physical distancing practices, people are not going to grocery stores for weekly fruit, produce, and fish/meat shops; (2) Canned and packaged foods last longer than fresh food; and (3) People are concerned that fresh or uncooked food could be contaminated with the virus.
Here I will address what is currently known about the third point, and suggest some ways to maintain a healthy diet while also minimizing your risk of infection from the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory disorder.
It is not in your food - Prior coronavirus outbreaks in China (e.g., SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV) did not indicate transmission through food consumption. To date there has been no evidence to support coronavirus transmission via food, and the virus certainly cannot replicate (i.e., “grow”) on food. Coronaviruses need a living animal host to replicate.
It may be on the outside of your food- The most important consideration for food safety is how long the virus remains “active” on surfaces. In February 2020, studies were initiated to evaluate the viability and survival time of SARS-CoV-2 on various foods and materials. It was found that, like many viruses, coronaviruses in general are very stable when frozen. They can last up to two years in the freezer. Coronaviruses are less viable in the refrigerator and other non-cooled surfaces, but they can still remain infectious for up to 72 hours. There is less understood about the viability of the virus in room temperature or outdoor spaces.
The virus is inactivated by digestion, and the route of infection is respiratory. So the real issue is that the surface of food may contaminate your hands and other surfaces you touch, once it enters your mouth your risk is reduced.
This is how you reduce your risk –
Standard meat and seafood cleaning and cooking practices will destroy the virus. With that said, it would be prudent to avoid raw fish and meat for the time being. The best way to reduce your risk of coronavirus infection from fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables is to wash them and then to par boil them. Coronaviruses don’t like heat and are thermolabile (i.e., susceptible to normal cooking temperatures), so cooked food is the safest. All meat and seafood should be fully cooked. The biggest concern with fresh fruits and vegetables is that an infected person coughed or sneezed on it. Washing and cooking your fresh produce will remove this potential risk of exposure. Just keep in mind that you should not use soap or bleach to wash your food, and there is no evidence that vegetable washes kill the virus. Instead, simply wash your food with warm water and cook it for 1-3 minutes.
To summarize, the surface of fresh foods may be contaminated with coronavirus, which could be a mode of transmission, but coronaviruses are very susceptible to common cleaning and disinfection. Storing food in the refrigerator and freezer prolongs the viability of the virus, but is necessary to avoid other food borne illnesses. However, there are many ways to “get your apple and eat it too”. First, clean your refrigerator and freezer with a disinfectant, to remove any viral particles that may be there already. Second, after you shop for or order fresh food, wash it before putting it away. Third, fully cook fish and meat. Fourth, wash produce and par boil it before eating.
Finally remember, failure to wash your hands and maintain a safe distance of at least 6 feet from other people remains the major cause of transmission.
If you bring a food home from the grocery store and can leave it untouched in a cabinet or the refrigerator for 72 hours you can mitigate your risk and enjoy that food as normal.
Sanitize the outer packaging of items that you’ll place directly into your freezer. If you are concerned about raw meat that was handled by a butcher you may leave it in your refrigerator for 72 hours and then transfer it to the freezer.
If you bring home raw fruit and vegetables you can eat the produce right away if you cook or par-boil it. Alternatively, you can wait 72 hours to eat that item in its raw form.
In the spirit of full disclosure. I’ve weighed the risk myself and will eat a raw piece of produce much sooner than 72 hours. I am hoping that the odds that somebody sneezed directly on my produce are low **crosses fingers and exhales some of the food prep stress **
Another thought from Beth: Here is a simple way to think about your food. Treat your hands and surfaces as if you are handling raw chicken. Sanitize your surface, your knives and your hands after doing any food preparation.