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 takeout order?
Microbiologist and food-safety expert Donald W. Schaffner, PhD, a distinguished professor of food science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, 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 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which states that worldwide, health experts have reported zero cases of foodborne coronavirus. “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.
Not so 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 sanitizer. The stomach’s highly acidic environment likely explains why coronavirus can’t infect the body via foods like baby spinach or sandwiches.
Just note: 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, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—coronavirus still could hitchhike onto hands from contaminated surfaces during grocery shopping and meals, Schaffner says. Those surfaces might include objects such as cart handles in the supermarket, communal ketchup bottles at the local burger joint, or the plastic container for your takeout salad.
Schaffner’s advice: Help keep the virus away from your face by cleaning hands thoroughly using soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, 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.
Erin Quinlan is a freelance journalist in New York City.