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What to know about food safety and COVID-19

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Mar 27, 2020

News on COVID-19 has overtaken our lives like no other worldwide event in many, many years. From vigilant hand washing to practicing social distancing, no one has been spared the magnitude this unseen virus has unleashed. Many are questioning, what about food safety? Can COVID-19 be transmitted through eating and what can we do protecting ourselves and others?

During this historic and unprecedented time, this is what you need to know concerning the safety of what you are eating to reduce any chance of viral contamination:

Is the U.S. food supply safe?

The short answer is yes, the U.S. food supply is safe. The 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) is not a foodborne illness but rather a respiratory illness.  It attacks the lungs but not the digestive system, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  Viruses such as norovirus and hepatitis A can be contracted through contaminated food and water. However, Covid-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2 which causes respiratory illnesses but with no known means of transmission through food. This virus is believed to be mainly spread from being in close contact (less than 6 feet) with other people through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs. People exposed to these droplets that land in their mouth or nose, can be inhaled into the lungs. While the virus may be transmitted by touching a surface or object with it and then touching your mouth or nose, this not believed to be the main mode of transmission.  Preventing foodborne illnesses can be achieved by practicing the 4 steps of food safety :

  • Clean – Wash kitchen surfaces often and always wash your hands frequently, especially after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom
  • Separate – Do not cross contaminate
  • Cook – Cook to proper temperature
  • Chill – Refrigerate or freeze promptly 

How can I be sure eating takeout from restaurants is safe during COVID-19?

This is a valid question that is natural for us to worry about. We want to support local restaurants by ordering take out or delivery options but to also be safe. Generally it is safe to order and eat takeout food – restaurant employees are well-trained and will be wearing gloves. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently state that there is no evidence COVID-19 has spread through food or food packaging. 

Foods that are well-cooked should be free of any microbes and safe for consumption. Undercooked or raw foods have more of a risk of carrying a virus that can cause a digestive illness – food safety experts agree that foods that are properly cooked for a long enough time
at a high enough temperature can kill harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. During this pandemic, the main concerns would be if someone working at the restaurant is infected with the virus, coughs or sneezes and the droplets land on the food. If the takeout food is delivered to your home, have the delivery person leave the food at your doorstep.  Remove takeout food from the container/box (throw this away) and placed on a plate – do not eat food while still in a takeout box. You can also use a cloth of soap and water to wipe down the takeout containers before removing the food, if you want. Be sure to wash your hands before eating. 

Keep a clean kitchen

Kitchen cleanliness is more important than ever.  Practice regular cleaning of countertops, stove tops, refrigerator, kitchen faucets, and cabinet handles with household disinfectant before and after each meal.  Always wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after food preparation, especially after handling raw meat. Follow the ten steps to safe kitchen to enhance your safety of preventing any transmission of COVID-19 or other viral microbes. Do not share eating utensils, drinking glasses, or drinking from a bottle or can with one another – the mouth is a primary means of transmission of COVID-19 and an infected person can spread viral droplets left on the surfaces of these items

What about grocery store safety?

Although the risk of catching COVID-19 from food at the grocery store is low, there are steps you can take to further reduce your risk:

  • Shop when there are fewer people in the store and keep a six-foot distance between other shoppers. Many grocery stores are already limiting the number of people allowed at a time in grocery stores to help with social distancing.
  • Unless there is an employee at the entrance wiping down grocery cart handles, carry sanitized wipes to do it yourself. The greatest risk of contracting viruses when shopping is from touching a shopping cart or basket. Coronavirus can remain on hard surfaces such as steel and plastic for up to 3 days.  Refrain from touching your face whenever in a public place. Carry hand sanitizer and use it after leaving the building. 
  • If you are concerned about food packaging, as a reasonable precaution, wash food container surfaces (canned goods, boxes, bagged) with soap and wash your hands again afterwards. 
  • Only buy what you need to help reduce the number of trips to the grocery store. Keep in stock nonperishable items such as oatmeal, canned and frozen goods, pasta, rice, and peanut butter easily made into a meal. 
  • Wash all fresh produce thoroughly under running water.

Can the virus be spread through water?

At this time, there is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus can be spread through drinking water.  However, to be on the safe side, do not share glasses or cans/bottles containing any fluids between family members or friends. 

Final thoughts on food safety and COVID-19

Whether in the crisis of a worldwide pandemic or not, food safety should always be of utmost concern in protecting our health. Now, more than ever, each of us needs to do our part in containing the spread of COVID-19.  Even once it is long gone, practicing food safety will always be necessary to safeguard our health and well-being.

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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