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Why You Probably Don’t Need to Worry About Catching COVID-19 from Food

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From frozen food to meals prepared in restaurants, experts say there’s no evidence people can develop COVID-19 from handling food. Getty Images
  • The CDC and the World Health Organization say there’s no evidence to suggest people could catch the coronavirus from handling food, even fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Experts also say it’s unlikely people will develop COVID-19 from packaged food.
  • The CDC advises people to not wipe down cardboard or plastic packaging with disinfectants designed for hard surfaces, as they may contaminate the food held within.
  • But for fresh foods, like fruits and vegetables, health experts say people should use the same precautions as they would before: It’s always best to wash those foods before eating them.

It’s entirely on-brand for 2020 to make something as simple as going to the grocery store or a restaurant stressful.

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s still valid concern about being inside an enclosed space with other people, as well as having to touch common spaces — from the handle of a shopping cart to the keypad of a credit card reader.

That’s why many stores now require masks, have markings on the floor to remind people to stand 6 feet apart, and have made hand sanitizer readily available.

But people can rest assured that the food itself isn’t the dangerous part.

In fact, public health experts say essentially that once you get out of the store and get your groceries home, you’re largely in the clear.

“People should not be too concerned if they wash or sanitize their hands after handling the product before touching their faces,” said Dr. Niket Sonpal, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist and adjunct professor at Touro College of Medicine.

By following those simple guidelines, health experts around the globe say going to the grocery store remains safe, the same as having those groceries delivered or having prepared food delivered directly to their homes.

While the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has become so prevalent that it’s hard to pin down exactly where certain cases come from, leading health agencies in the United States and across the world say there aren’t any cases directly connected to grocery shopping or food delivery.

That includes foods coming from meat-packing plants where large-scale and fatal infections have occurred.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say the risks of developing COVID-19 from eating or handling food is “very low.” They also say there have been no cases linked to handling packaged food.

The CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) say there’s no evidence to suggest people could develop COVID-19 from handling food — even fresh fruits and vegetables.

The WHO does warn that there’s also no evidence to suggest that any herbal teas, probiotics, or other so-called remedies, like eating ginger or garlic, can stave off COVID-19.

But because the initial cases of COVID-19 were associated with fresh seafood markets in China, some people may remain skeptical of certain foods, especially after some research suggested the virus could live on fresh salmon for up to a week.

So along with personal safety measures, basic food safety measures are important to maintain, such as cooking meats to the appropriate temperatures.

The CDC reports that 23 states have reported COVID-19 outbreaks in meat and poultry processing facilities, but those cases were attributed to working conditions, such as working closely with co-workers for up to 12 hours, shared transportation to and from work, and co-workers living in congregate housing.

But for fresh foods, like fruits and vegetables, health experts say people should use the same precautions as they would before: It’s always best to wash those foods before eating them.

“Consumers should thoroughly wash fresh produce with cold tap water,” Dr. Daniel Devine, dual-board certified internist and geriatrician and co-founder of Devine Concierge Medicine in Pennsylvania, told Healthline.

“The CDC recommends against using soap, alcohol, bleach, or other sanitizers for the cleaning process,” he adds. “Consumers may scrub firm produce with a clean brush and cold tap water.”

Devine recommends people also follow CDC guidelines regarding prepackaged foods, which includes not wiping down cardboard or plastic packaging with disinfectants designed for hard surfaces, as they may contaminate the food held within.

But experts like Sonpal say, while it’s still unlikely to contract the coronavirus from packaged food, human behavior does play a factor in the transmission of the virus.

“Viruses like COVID-19 mainly spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets after someone coughs, sneezes, or talks,” Sonpal said. “If someone touches a surface or object, including food or food packaging, that has the virus on it, and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes, it is possible to get COVID-19.”

Those human-to-human contact concerns are why bars, nightclubs, and in-person dining at restaurants were quickly shut down once the severity of the pandemic was realized.

Even now, many major cities in the United States say infection rates are too high to open again safely.

But many cities, from New York to San Francisco, are now opening for outdoor dining, as health officials believe eating outdoors — while tables are separated at a safe distance and servers and patrons wear masks — is a safer alternative to eating indoors where the virus could linger longer in the air.

“Eating outdoors is considered safer due to improved airflow as compared to indoor dining. Many states are planning to resume indoor dining with mandates for decreased indoor dining capacity to ensure patrons maintain social distancing guidelines,” Devine said.

He added, “As more locations resume indoor dining, physicians and public health officials will be monitoring closely for any potential outbreaks. Many restaurants have instituted robust sanitization protocols that, in addition to reduced seating capacity, should help prevent spread of the virus from an infected patron to others.”

Janilyn Hutchings is a certified food safety professional at StateFoodSafety, which offers food safety training and certification programs.

She said the risk level of different types of food and food orders all depend on how much face-to-face contact you’re likely to have with how many people.

“Buying prepackaged food and fresh foods at a grocery store is probably about as risky as dining in a restaurant because in both cases you’re going into an establishment that potentially has numerous other patrons and that may require you to get close to at least one other person — the cashier or server,” she said.

Hutchings said people can decrease their risk of getting COVID-19 by wearing a mask at all times in grocery stores and restaurants (except when you’re eating), as well as maintaining 6 feet of distance and following any additional guidelines set by the establishment.

But getting food to-go or delivered to your home, she said, is probably the least risky way to get food right now.

“With many delivery services, you pay online, so the amount of time you have to spend face-to-face with the delivery driver is slim to none,” Hutchings said. “You also don’t have to worry about other patrons, especially ones that aren’t following mask or social distancing guidelines.”

And, because there’s no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through food or food packaging, Hutchings and others say people shouldn’t worry about the safety of food manufactured in plants, even one where a COVID-19 outbreak occurred, if basic food handling safety measures are followed.