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COVID-19 and Food Safety

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2020

Like many of you, I’ve been wondering about COVID-19 & food safety. Is it safe to eat takeout prepared by your local restaurant? To answer that and many other questions, Kenji Lopez-Alt has compiled a comprehensive guide to food safety and coronavirus for Serious Eats. Kenji is the most fastidious and exacting food person I know — how could you think otherwise after having read The Food Lab? — so I take his thoughts and research on this very seriously.

Even so, plenty of folks — myself included — 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?

To answer these questions, I referenced dozens of articles and scientific reports and enlisted the help of Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist from the North Carolina State University and cohost of Risky or Not and Food Safety Talk.

Let’s get right to the nitty gritty:

Q: 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.

Be sure to read on for answers to questions like “Are we going to run out of food?” and “Am I more likely to get COVID-19 from take-out, delivery, or cooking at home?”

The FDA has a coronavirus safety page on their website as well.

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. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.

In a piece from March 14, Amanda Mull talked with epidemiologist Stephen Morse from Columbia University about food safety:

Even if the person preparing it is sick, he told me via email, “cooked foods are unlikely to be a concern unless they get contaminated after cooking.” He granted that “a salad, if someone sneezes on it, might possibly be some risk,” but as long as the food is handled properly, he said, “there should be very little risk.”

And Don Schaffner, a professor in the food science department at Rutgers, has been posting information on food safety & COVID-19 on Twitter.

Even if a sick worker sneezed on my food (I know that’s gross), my risk of contracting COVID-19 from it are very low.

First it’s important to realize that this is a respiratory illness as far as we know. The biggest risk is being around sick people who are shedding the virus when they sneeze or cough.

Even if the virus did get onto food, we’re going to put that food in our mouth and swallow it so the virus will end up in our stomach. Our stomachs have a low pH which would likely in activate the virus.