Coronavirus and food safety: Why there’s no need to panic

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Every day seems to bring dire news about coronavirus COVID-19. As this virus spreads, how concerned should we be for our safety? And should we fear transmission of the virus via our food, especially among imported products? Based on what we now know, the answer is “no.”

From its emergence in the food market of Wuhan, China in early 2020, the deadly COVID-19 continues to infect individuals around the world. While we all nervously monitor its spread, the global medical community is working frantically to find both a treatment and a vaccine.

As medical professionals find the answers they seek, Dirt-to-Dinner takes a look at what we already know about the coronavirus. What risks do Americans face? And what does the consumer need to know about the potential risks of going about daily life? Is our food safe? The answers we’ve found tell us to be careful – but not to panic when it comes to our food supply.

Is my food safe?

Health authorities note that it is possible to transmit the virus from a contaminated surface, such as a package or other object, if that object had been contaminated through direct contact with an infected person who had sneezed on or otherwise deposited droplets on the surface.

Current findings from the National Institutes of Health and CDC show that the virus causing COVID-19 can be stable on surfaces for up to four hours on copper, one day on cardboard, and up to three days on plastics and steel. For aerosols, the virus can be stable for up to three hours. However, bear in mind this is assessed from controlled lab conditions, making the aerosolized virus an unlikely cause for transmission, as reported by the CDC.

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Credit: Tamas Kovacs/MTI/AP

The most likely form of COVID-19 transmission is in droplet form, when the virus is airborne for a few seconds after someone sneezes or coughs. In this form, it can only travel a short distance before it lands on something (hence why we’re staying 6 feet away from people right now). As for surfaces, it’s good practice to thoroughly wash your hands after handling any items in or from public places, such as shopping carts, your mail, packages delivered to your doorstop, and – to be extra cautious – your food.

What can we do?

While coronavirus is not known to spread through our food, especially food that is cooked, it is wise to take grocery store precautions and while cooking. Here are some simple tips to keep your kitchen clean and your family healthy.

Wash your hands. Before the grocery store, when you get home, and after you have unpacked your groceries. You have heard this everywhere, but it can’t be said enough. If your hands are clean and you touch your face, you can’t contract COVID-19.

Wash your produce. You don’t know who has handled it before you brought it home. You don’t need to use soap – any virus or dirt will come off with just plain water. Don’t wait to wash your produce – wash it before you put it in your refrigerator or on your counter.

After you unpack your bags, wash your counter with soap and water.  You should probably do this anyway – but this keeps you extra vigilant. It is also wise to rinse off any containers that you are about to put in your refrigerator such as milk, yogurt, and ketchup with soap and water. If you forgot this step and are thinking about the food in your refrigerator, then wash your hands after using what was in the carton. Keep your shelves washed every once in a while, as well.

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Cook your food to the appropriate temperature. Use a meat thermometer. Heat is going to quickly kill the virus.

How does coronavirus spread?

Health officials admit they have much to learn about how coronavirus COVID-19 spreads. But based upon experience with other viruses, some basic facts are known.

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First and foremost, this virus is spread through direct contact with an infected person, and most often through the respiratory system. Much like the flu or a bad cold, people are contaminated by “respiratory droplets” – a polite term for being sneezed or coughed on, or being in close enough proximity to inhale the virus. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that the virus is spread by “close contact” with an infected person – meaning “about six feet.”

Some health officials also warn against touching your eyes, nose or other mucous surfaces if your hands have been contaminated by droplets.

While the transmission mechanism may seem straightforward enough, it’s not always easy to spot who may be carrying the virus – and who may simply have a cold or flu. While medical experts dive deeper into transmission factors and other aspects of COVID-19, the safest course would seem to be to avoid close contact with anyone showing signs of a respiratory condition or problem. And definitely don’t shake the hand of an infected person and then touch any of your own mucous surfaces.

What happens next?

While the dangers of COVID-19 are undoubtedly real and significant to people everywhere, health experts point to a number of reasons to avoid panic.

First, there is widespread agreement among the global community for a collaborative effort to contain spread of the virus, primarily through careful control of travel from where the virus is known to exist.

Also, information about the virus is being aggressively shared across the world. One of the best tools to combat the virus is a better understanding of what to look for to spot the disease, and how to avoid risk of contamination.

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And just as important, there is a concerted effort among the scientific, academic, governmental and health communities to pool knowledge and resources to combat the problem. While there is much to learn about COVID-19, painful experience with pernicious coronaviruses has helped us learn a great deal to execute an effective response. As much work as remains to be done in developing comprehensive treatment regimens and potential vaccines, we’re not starting from ground zero.

And don’t be afraid of your food.

  • Continue to eat the foods you enjoy – and enjoy the foods you eat!
  • Thoroughly wash and cook your foods
  • Maintain a healthy diet to keep your immune system strong

The Bottom Line

Health officials around the world agree to be cautious of those possibly infected with coronavirus, but there’s no need to panic when it comes to our food supply. This virus is spread through direct contact with an infected person, mostly via coughing and sneezing. As long as you wash and properly prepare your foods, there is no need to fear contracting the virus in this manner.

Garland West is a writer and business consultant with several decades experience in food and agricultural issues, most notably those involving food security and economic development

This article is published as part of a partnership with Dirt to Dinner, which can be followed on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner

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