Food Safety and COVID-19

AnswerLine has been getting lots of calls about food safety and food safety practices during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.  With many of us being at home, our TVs provide some entertainment as well as non-stop COVID-19 news and advice from one ‘expert’ to the next.  The messages are very mixed and sometimes downright FALSE.  We at AnswerLine, a part of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, are committed to providing consumers with researched-based information and supporting the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s measures and advice on staying safe during this time.

Here’s answers to some of the questions clients have asked regarding food safety, food packaging, and how to shop for food safely.  Answers to these questions come from the following resources:

1USDA, Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions/Food Safety 
2Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, No Evidence COVID-19 Is Transmitted Through Food and Food Packaging 
3North Carolina State Extension, Covid-19 Food Safety ResourcesSee this site for copies of flyers to share on these topics.

Q:  Can I become sick with COVID-19 from food?
A:   “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the European Food Safety Authority are in full agreement that 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.”2  

“Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses like Norovirus and Hepatitis A that often make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness and not food poisoning, and foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.” 2

As before the pandemic, one needs to vigilantly practice good hygiene such as washing hands and surfaces often and correctly, separating meat from other foods, cooking foods to the correct temperature, and refrigerating foods properly and promptly to keep food supplies safe and prevent food-borne illnesses.

Q:  Do I need to disinfect my produce before I use it?
A:  “Washing produce before eating or using fresh is always a good idea.  It is NOT recommended to wash produce with dish soap or any detergent or to treat produce with a chemical disinfectant.”Washing produce with these products can cause vomiting and diarrhea making consumers otherwise sick.

Some have promoted the use of natural disinfectants like vinegar and water as a safer way to wash fruits and vegetables.  Unlike soaps, detergents and chemicals, vinegar and water will not harm anyone; however, vinegar and water simply offer false security when it comes to COVID-19.  While a few studies have shown that vinegar helps with some viruses and microbes, there is no evidence that it can kill COVID-19.  

Q:  I have heard that the virus lives on surfaces.  Do I need to sanitize or disinfect packaged and canned food items?  Do I need to remove food items from cardboard packaging and store otherwise?
A:  As previously stated, food and food packaging are NOT major sources of virus transmission.  However, laboratory studies have shown that COVID-19 can survive for days on plastic, cardboard, glass, and steel.  Therefore, it is “possible that a person could get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the primary way the virus spreads.”2 Person to person is the most likely means of transmission.

“Handling of food packaging should be followed with handwashing and/or using hand sanitizer.”3 If it offers one more peace of mind to handle items with gloves and to wipe plastic, glass, and cans at home with a disinfectant before storing, there is no harm in doing so as long as it is done safely, items are allowed to dry completely, gloves are disposed of, and hand washing follows.  Cardboard should not be wiped with a disinfectant prior to storage; foods items can be removed and stored appropriately otherwise with the cardboard box disposed of, if that brings more peace of mind.

Q:  Should I store my groceries someplace other than my pantry, refrigerator, or freezer?
A:  “It is NOT recommended to store groceries outside of the home, in cars or garages.”3

Q:  How can I minimize my risk at the store?
A:  “Use hand sanitizer when entering stores and wash hands and/or use sanitizer when leaving. Bring your own disinfecting wipes and use on cart and basket handles and card readers. Maintain social distancing as much as possible while shopping and give others at least 6 ft of space. Avoid touching surfaces or items unnecessarily (touch only items that you will buy) and avoid touching your mouth, nose or face.”3 To avoid touching produce with your bare hands use a produce bag to pick up items and place into a clean bag or use the same bag if you are getting a single item; avoid touching multiple items when making produce selections.  Discard all plastic bags at home and wash your hands after discarding. 

If your store permits the use of recyclable bags, make sure to follow these guidelines each and every time they are used during this time of caution.  Many stores are not permitting their use presently.

Lastly, the best food safety protection for ALL is for everyone to be responsible and avoid shopping if experiencing a cough, runny nose, or fever—symptoms of any virus.  And always seek responsible, researched-based information for as a friend’s father advised, “Misinformation is worse than no information at all!”

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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