Questions about COVID-19 and food safety, answered.
I’ve been picking up takeaway food from my local small businesses, both to keep myself fed and to support local businesses during this difficult time. But many of us wonder, is it safe to consume food prepared by others?
Plenty of folks have been confused or curious about the safety of allowing restaurants to continue preparing and serving food. Is it actually safe? Should I reheat the food when I get it home? Is it better to support local businesses by ordering food, or am I only putting workers and delivery people at risk? And if I’m cooking my own food, what guidelines should I follow?
I came across this excellent and very comprehensive resource on Serious Eats. To answer these questions, author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt referenced dozens of articles and scientific reports and enlisted the help of Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist from the North Carolina State University
Some of the main questions answered in the article are:
How long does the virus stay on contaminated surfaces?
A study funded by the NIAID and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 can be detected in aerosols (airborne droplets smaller than five micrometers) for up to three hours, on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on stainless steel or plastic for up to three days. (Follow the link for more comprehensive graphs of viral load decay.)
This means that if a delivery person or package handler infected with the virus coughs or sneezes on packages or envelopes, the virus can stay on those packages for up to a day, while plastic take-out containers or steel work surfaces can hold the virus for three days. The viral load on any surface will decrease logarithmically with time; that is, the number of virus particles decreases rapidly at the start, then slowly approaches zero over time.
According to Chapman, there is currently no consensus on the minimum viral load necessary for infection. Some scientists put the number as low as a single virion—given ideal conditions (read: if your food has a lone virion on it, you’d have to intensely smear the food on your hands then purposely rub them in your eyes and up your nose).
Should I avoid touching things other people have touched?
Avoiding all potentially contaminated surfaces is unrealistic. Still, there are two easy ways you can minimize the risk: Transfer food and other goods—whether delivered to your door or bought at the store—to clean containers when it makes sense to, and wash your hands thoroughly after checking the mail or venturing out of your home.
Coronavirus is fragile and easily destroyed by hand soap, disinfectant wipes, and cleaning sprays.
Can I get COVID-19 from touching or eating contaminated food?
According to multiple health and safety organizations worldwide, including the CDC, the USDA, and the European Food safety Authority, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 has spread through food or food packaging. Previous coronavirus epidemics likewise showed no evidence of having been spread through food or packaging. Respiratory viruses reproduce along the respiratory tract—a different pathway than the digestive tract food follows when you swallow it. Using clean silverware when possible and washing your hands after eating and before touching your face further minimizes that risk.
There is currently no evidence that COVID-19 has spread through food or food packaging.
Are there any special risks associated with food?
None that have been recognized. Food handlers are specifically trained in proper safety and hygiene procedures. Federal and state-level regulations mandate everything: the location of handwashing sinks, the type of soap used in them, the frequency of work-surface sanitization, the temperature of the dishwasher, the temperature to which various foods must be cooked, the rate at which they must be chilled, the cleaning and storage process for raw product, et cetera. Any restaurant or market that handles, packages, or serves food should be—and usually is—following all of these guidelines. The penalties for noncompliance vary by jurisdiction, but are typically severe, ranging from posted notices for minor violations to outright shut-downs to multiple minor violations or major violations.
If I’m still concerned, does reheating food before eating it destroy the virus?
Yes. As with any bacteria or virus, safe cooking is a function of temperature and time. The hotter the temperature, the less time you’ll need to reduce viral or bacterial load to a safe level. With salmonella, for instance, 165°F (75°C) is hot enough to make a 5-log reduction in bacterial load in under a second (that is, only one out of every 100,000 bacteria will survive that temperature and time). At 145°F (63°C), the same reduction in pathogens would take around 10 minutes. (Bear in mind this is the temperature of the food, not the oven.)
Are we going to run out of food?
Because limiting your time out of home can slow the spread of the virus, it’s a good idea to make fewer, larger trips to the supermarket. But how much food do you really need? Initial panic and hoarding behavior has caused short-term shortages at supermarkets and grocery stores across the country. But there’s good news: the FDA reports that there are currently no long-term issues with food supplies. In all likelihood, you’re still going to be able to buy eggs, dairy, dried and canned goods, paper products, fresh meat and produce, and even soap next week and next month. There’s no need to buy a three month supply of canned soup or years’ worth of toilet paper.
The main risk factor remains proximity to other people.
A good rule of thumb is to treat anything that comes into your home from outside, whether food, mail, or other people, as potentially contaminated and act accordingly. Wash your hands after bringing it home, transfer to clean containers and/or sanitize packaging when possible, and wash your hands before, during, and after cooking.