With concerns about coronavirus running high, most of us are doing everything we can to stay healthy. So it makes sense that people are wondering about food safety: Could you catch contagious COVID-19 from the groceries you bring home from the supermarket—or from your next restaurant takeaway order?
Microbiologist and food-safety expert Donald W. Schaffner, PhD, offers reassurance on that front. “There’s no evidence to suggest that people can get coronavirus from eating food,” he says.
This echoes the latest information from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), which states that "transmission through food is unlikely and so far there is no evidence that people have become infected by swallowing the virus in or on food or drink." “Coronavirus is a respiratory illness,” Schaffner says. “Its mode of invasion is through the respiratory system, not the intestines.” The public’s confusion and fear is understandable, he adds. Certain other viruses, such as noroviruses and hepatitis A, can spread through contaminated food and drinks. This is not the case for coronavirus. Though it can make some people very sick after invading cells in the respiratory tract, coronavirus is “fairly fragile” otherwise, Schaffner says. On surfaces including skin, it’s easily defeated by agents such as soap and alcohol-based hand sanitiser. The stomach’s highly acidic environment likely explains why coronavirus can’t infect the body via foods like baby spinach or sandwiches.
While food itself probably won’t make you sick with COVID-19—and while direct person-to-person transmission remains the primary way the virus spreads, coronavirus still could hitchhike onto hands from contaminated surfaces during grocery shopping and meals, Schaffner says. Therefore everyone should practice good hygiene when preparing food.
Schaffner’s advice: Help keep the virus away from your face by cleaning hands thoroughly using soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitiser, at the following key moments:
- Before preparing food
- Immediately prior to eating
- After making hand contact with a surface touched by someone else
- Immediately after eating
Extreme attempts to decontaminate food—say, by rinsing fruits and veggies with diluted bleach, a trend spotted on social media during this latest coronavirus outbreak—aren’t necessary and in some instances could have harmful digestive effects, Schaffner notes. Standard food safety precautions should be sufficient.
“Fear doesn’t have to stop us from making healthy choices,” Schaffner says. With simple everyday measures, you can help keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community safe.
Food safety prep tips
- Invest in two cutting boards: Use one for produce and another for raw meat, poultry, and seafood to ensure that bacteria from protein foods can’t contaminate your fruits and veggies.
- Give produce a bath: Rinse all fruits and vegetables in a colander to keep them free from any bacteria that could be hanging out in your kitchen sink. What about chicken? Contrary to what you might have heard, you should never rinse raw poultry as this can spread salmonella onto other surfaces such as utensils, the kitchen bench or cutting boards.
- Thaw it right: Grandma might have defrosted her chicken on the kitchen bench, but you shouldn’t. Why? Thawing frozen meat, poultry and seafood encourages microbes to multiply quickly. Defrost in a covered dish on the lowest shelf in your fridge instead.
- Cook by the numbers: It’s tempting to eyeball a chicken breast or burger to determine if it’s cooked through. But insufficiently cooked meat and poultry can be laced with bacteria. Instead use a food thermometer to make sure these proteins have reached the proper cooking temps. To cook red meat medium rare the temperature should reach 63ºC and 74ºC for poultry.
- Refrigerate it fast: Cooling leftovers on the kitchen bench before refrigerating them creates a playground for bacteria. Pack up leftovers right after meals and pop them into the fridge promptly for safer cooling.