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Can you catch COVID-19 from food?

Boxes of takeout food.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

The thought may have crossed your mind as you navigate grocery store aisles or order takeout in the midst of a pandemic: Can you catch the new coronavirus from food?

Experts say there's currently no evidence of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, being transmitted through food. 

"We don't really have any evidence that food or food packaging is a source for getting sick" from COVID-19, said Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.

Chapman stressed that there's a lot we don't know about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2. Our understanding about the spread of the disease, and the risk food poses, could change as more information becomes available.

But as far as we know, the disease appears to be spread mainly from person-to-person through virus particles that are spread when someone coughs or sneezes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While COVID-19 can theoretically be transmitted by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes, that's not thought to be its primary mode of transmission, according to the CDC. 

Why food is low risk 

There are also several factors that could make transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through food less likely, even if the virus is present on food or a food worker catches it.

First, the food safety measures that are already in place to prevent foodborne illness — such as frequent hand-washing, cleaning of surfaces and utensils, and cooking food to the right temperature — would also reduce the transmission of any virus particles through food.

"One of the benefits we have in the food world is we're already thinking of those things a lot —  we're constantly trying to stay away from transmission of foodborne pathogens in normal, regular times," Chapman told Live Science.

Another factor is the biology of the virus. It cannot survive for weeks at a time on surfaces —  a characteristic of other foodborne viruses such as norovirus, according to the Centers for Science in the Public Interest. (Preliminary studies have found the new coronavirus may last a few hours to a few days on certain surfaces.) And unlike bacteria, viruses cannot grow inside food, so the amount of virus in the food would be expected to dwindle with time, rather than grow.

Also, in theory, this type of virus should not survive well in the stomach, which is very acidic. "That's good news around food,"  Chapman said. 

Still, the extent to which people can become infected by touching their mouths, or eating contaminated food, is unclear.

"It's not that it's not possible" for people to become infected with COVID-19 through food, Chapman said."There's always this possibility. But I want to make the best risk management decision based on the best science and evidence, and we just don't have any evidence in that area" right now, Chapman said.

Tips for groceries and takeout 

Although the risk of catching COVID-19 from food is likely low, there are some steps you can take to further reduce your risk. Here are some tips. (Chapman and his colleagues have also put together some COVID-19 resources regarding food safety for consumers and the food service industry.)

Store-bought food:

  • It's always a good idea — even when there's no pandemic — to rinse fresh fruit and vegetables with water to remove dirt, debris and pesticides, and reduce levels of foodborne germs. 
  • There's no need to wash food with soap. "Soap is for hands, not for food," Chapman  said. 
  •  If you are concerned about food packaging, you can wash your hands after handling the packaging. 
  •  If you are concerned about your food, you can cook it at 149 degrees Fahrenheit (65 degrees Celsius) for 3 minutes, which will significantly reduce levels of any virus particles, Chapman said. 

Takeout:

  • Food that comes from restaurants is "really, really low risk" because food industry workers already have a heightened awareness about food safety. To further reduce the risk, Chapman encourages people to wash their hands after handling food packaging or takeout bags. 

It's also important for employers in the food industry to have strong employee health policies. Food workers should stay home if they start to feel symptoms, even if they haven't been diagnosed with COVID-19, he said.

Originally published on Live Science.  

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  • Concerned Citizen
    Sorry, but that sounds like a load. So if people that have the coronavirus have no symptoms and handle produce for example you are saying to rinse it off in water? How is that going to reduce or kill the virus in any way shape or form? You mentioned soap is for hands, not for food. So please let the American people know what is used to sanitize fruit because you can't convince me that water is going to kill a deadly living organism. Honestly removing a pesticide with water is probably the craziest thing I have seen all day and I am informed. Also, it sounds extremely promising that cooking at 149 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 minutes will significantly REDUCE levels of virus particles so there is no sure way to know that what you are eating will infect and kill you. Nicely written. I am also intrigued that the comments don't show up on the actual post either. Good day.
    Reply
  • belangers
    admin said:
    The risk of catching COVID-19 from food appears very low, but there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk further.

    Can you catch COVID-19 from food? : Read more
    Your response is a load of nonsense. Viruses are well known to infect bacteria, which are called bacteriophages or "phages" in medicine. The virus recodes the bacteria and restructures them to create a completely different microbe with the ability to inject cells of the host (which would be the same type of bacteria or susceptable bacteria, then the cell explodes, multiplying exponentially into the host over and over, so NO, you are wrong since there is bacteria in the air, all surfaces, and millions in human mouths, noses, etc. The way to extinguish this type of bacteria and virus needs both an effective antiviral as well as an antibiotic that is capable of killing the bacteria hosting the virus. This is why new attempts of the US Government to treat COVID 19 will be coming to those of NYC with old anti malaria antiviral and azithromycin since it was amazingly effective on SARS patients in studies. This isn't just a virus, it has moved on to infect other things we have in our bodies, that is why it seems so virulent, when it is actually being transmitted by bacteria that is everywhere, not going through masks, etc. You can get this virus anywhere, that is why it isn't going away until it is treated. The chinese know this as they have stopped the disease from ravaging their country and just let it continue to plague us. They want this to happen.
    Reply