Coronavirus and Food Safety

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend daily life around the world, concerns about the food supply grow. And it’s not just about the ability of food producers to get their products into the hands of people who need them. There’s also the concern whether the act of passing food from one person to another might result in transmission of the novel coronavirus.

While it’s not unfounded to wonder whether you can get sick with COVID-19 from your food, experts agree: The evidence we have so far points to food being safe from coronavirus fears.

[See: Myths About Coronavirus.]

Not a Foodborne Illness

On March 17, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that “currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.” This novel coronavirus is not considered a foodborne illness, and “foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.”

A foodborne illness designation falls to viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A, both of which can make you very sick via the food you eat.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted similar reassurance that the food supply is safe and that the coronavirus is not transmitted via food.

In a statement released this week announcing its 2020 Shopper’s Guide and updated Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, the Environmental Working Group underscored these assurances: “As all Americans struggle to adapt to the reality of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to know that there is no evidence people can be exposed through food. The spread pattern for coronavirus is quite different from those of foodborne pathogens like salmonella and E.coli. That is why, even though the risks of COVID-19 are serious, consumers should continue eating plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, whether they are conventional or organic.”

The World Health Organization is slightly more cautious in its advice, noting that the International Food Safety Authorities Network continues to investigate the potential for persistence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

This is a new virus, so we don’t know everything about how it’s transmitted. But WHO reports that outbreaks of similar upper respiratory diseases caused by SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV did not transmit via food consumption. This previous evidence suggests that the same will be true for the SARS-COV-2 virus, but more study is warranted.

Max Teplitski, chief science officer for the Produce Marketing Association, a global trade organization representing companies in the fresh produce and floral supply chain, points to a review study that “looked at the transmission of other respiratory viruses, such as influenza and other coronaviruses that cause common colds and SARS. The results of these studies are also clear: Fresh produce or food packaging has not been a vehicle of flu, common cold or SARS transmission. Based on these peer-reviewed studies and based on the epidemiological data we are obtaining from Asia and Europe, it is highly unlikely that anyone can get COVID-19 from fresh produce.”

There’s still a concern about whether the virus can survive on raw food, and, if so, for how long it can remain viable. A recent National Institutes of Health study found that the virus can remain viable on hard surfaces, such as steel and plastic, for up to three days.

The CDC also reported this week that traces of the coronavirus’s genetic material — which cannot cause infection — had survived for up to 17 days on surfaces inside the Diamond Princess cruise ship. And the virus is less stable on organic materials, such as cardboard. The NIH study found it can only survive 24 hours on cardboard. It’s believed the same holds true for food items, which are also organic matter. Washing fresh produce properly will help ensure that even if trace amounts of the virus are clinging to your food, you’re not ingesting it.

Teplitski points out that following safe food handling guidelines should always be in play. “To help combat the spread of other known foodborne pathogens such as the hepatitis A virus, E. coli, salmonella and norovirus, it’s important to handle raw food carefully and avoid consuming raw or undercooked meat and animal products.”

[SEE: 4 Surprising Food Safety Habits to Start.]

Can I Get Coronavirus from Takeout Food?

With regard to takeout and prepared food items you might be picking up from your neighborhood restaurant, the risk of transmission of the virus also seems remote, especially given that chefs and restaurant workers have long been trained on safe food handling practices to limit the risk of infecting others with more mundane pathogens. Nevertheless, because picking up food from a takeout location requires you to leave the house and potentially come into contact with others, you should continue to follow CDC guidelines:

Wash your hands frequently.

— Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth.

— Keep at least 6 feet away from others when you must enter a public space.

— Disinfect high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and light switches regularly.

— Avoid sharing household items, such as silverware, cups and other utensils, with others.

— Don’t go out if you feel unwell, have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been diagnosed with the illness. Call your health care provider for guidance.

Alternatively, consider using a touchless food delivery service to get your favorite restaurant meals without having to interact with another person.

[SEE: How to Cope With Coronavirus Anxiety.]

How to Clean Produce

Although COVID-19 is not transmitted via food, you do still need to practice safe food hygiene and be smart about how you shop for and store your food. Teplitski says that the SARS-CoV-2 virus “is significantly more susceptible to common cleaning practices, compared to foodborne viral pathogens such as norovirus and hepatitis A.”

Follow these safe food handling tips to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, as well as other foodborne illnesses:

— Clean fresh fruits and vegetables under warm, running water immediately prior to consumption.

— Produce with rinds, such as citrus fruits, should be scrubbed with a clean brush dedicated to this purpose under warm, running water. “This cleaning routine applies even to the fruits and vegetables that will be peeled prior to consumption,” Teplitski says.

— After being washed, dry fruits and vegetables with a clean paper towel.

— Cook meat and animal products thoroughly.

Teplitski says that while many people feel the need to use a strong cleanser to disinfect produce to remain safe from COVID-19, it’s not necessary. “There are a number of peer-reviewed studies in which the removal of viruses from fresh produce was compared using running water and various disinfectants. The results of these studies are consistent — there is no statistically significant difference in the removal of viral particles from produce surfaces using running water and scrubbing, versus using food-grade surfactants (detergents).”

Because scrubbing under running water is the best approach, neither the FDA nor the CDC recommends using detergents of any kind, even those that are natural or plant-based, to clean produce. The two organizations also recommend not using hand soap or dishwashing detergents.

There are some produce-wash products on the market that may be enticing for consumers looking to keep their food as clean as possible. “They are mostly effective in removing soil and some pesticide residues,” Teplitski says, “but they can also shorten the storage life of fruits.”

And Teplitski warns that you should never use laundry bleach — even if it’s highly diluted — to clean food items. “It’s a chemical that has various additives not allowed for food contact and consumption.” It’s overkill and could make you sick.

Storing Washed Produce

Ongoing stay-at-home and shelter-in-place restrictions mean that you should be limiting your trips to the grocery store. This can make eating whole, fresh foods a little more challenging. But it’s possible to store fresh produce so that it lasts. Teplitski says it’s best to “wash produce immediately prior to consumption,” to retain freshness longer.

But if you do need to store washed produce, “remember to chill it and separate it from unwashed produce, meats and household chemicals.” He also notes that “ready-to-eat produce such as bagged salad has generally been triple-washed using food-grade sanitizing solutions. These ready-to-eat bagged salads do no benefit from being washed again, for either quality or safety.”

Teplitski notes that “food safety practices that the industry has implemented are based on decades of rigorous scientific data designed to minimize, and aim to eliminate, the risk of foodborne illness.”

[SEE: Photos: Doctors, Nurses and Hospital Staff Fight Coronavirus Pandemic.]

Eating Healthy During this Pandemic

Though it can be tricky to keep up your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s now more important than ever to do so, as eating healthy, nutritious food is a good way to keep your immune system running optimally. And it’s important not just in the current crisis, but all the time. Eating healthfully is important for managing your weight and reducing your risk of several chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Teplitski says that if you’re skipping fruits and vegetables right now, you’re missing an opportunity to control weight and mitigate chronic illnesses. This is because plants contain health-promoting compounds called phytonutrients. Examples include:

Flavonoids. These compounds are thought to be protective against heart disease and cancer through reduction of inflammation.

Carotenoids. These compounds support eye and immune system health.

Resveratrol. Found in grapes and their skin, this compound supports cognitive and cardiovascular health.

Flavones and isoflavones. These flavonoids are antioxidants that help reduce cellular damage in the body from free radicals — toxins that can damage healthy cells.

There are thousands of phytonutrients in fresh, whole produce, which is why it’s so important to eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Many so-called superfoods, such a grapefruit, avocado and berries are rich sources of these important health-supporting compounds.

To get the best, fresh produce you can, you may actually want to consider staying local rather than going to a large supermarket. Rebekah Summer, a clinical dietitian with Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, says that whole foods that have undergone minimal processing and haven’t traveled very far may retain more of their nutritional value. “If you’re looking for increased nutritional value of your foods, purchasing locally can help you include higher nutrient content in your foods.”

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