Navigating food safety during the pandemic

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Shoppers like Hector Molina, right, helps his mother Gertrude Moore don wear protective masks and gloves as they visit a grocery store. Many shoppers are trying to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and wonder just how safe their food is.

Shoppers wandering up and down the aisles of grocery stores donning masks and gloves have become commonplace as people have begun taking extra measures to avoid becoming infected with the cornonavirus.

Others have resorted to ordering grocery items online opting to have them delivered straight to the trunk of their vehicle or their doorstep.

Just how safe are those red peppers in the produce section or that takeout food delivered to your door via UberEats?

Barb Ingham, UW Madison Division of Extension Food Safety Specialist and Professor in the Department of Food Science says there is no evidence that COVID-19 is a can be transmitted by food or food packaging.

"The primary route of infection is through airborne virus particles from the droplets of a sneeze or a cough or touching a contaminated surface and then transferring those live virus particles into your mouth, nose or eyes," she said. "Even though there isn't any evidence that food can make you sick, people are still worried."

Is takeout safe?

While people want to support eating establishments that have closed their dining rooms by ordering takeout, questions linger in customer's minds about the safety of their order.

"We do know that the virus itself isn't robust that robust in terms of surviving on our food. If food is cooked to the proper temperature it is going to destroy that virus," she said. 

Craig Hedberg, a University of Minnesota professor and expert on food-borne illnesses says customers should wash their hands after removing the packaging and before eating their delivered meals.

Food-safety expert Benjamin Chapman, a professor at North Carolina State University Chapman says those taking advantage of contactless delivery really only have to to worry about the packaging.

"Food or the packages could carry the virus, but the risk of transmission is very, very low," Chapman said. "This is a remote possibility and thousands if not millions of times less likely than any of the other exposure routes."

Despite there being no evidence that COVID-19 is a can be transmitted by food or food packaging, shoppers are taking extra precautions such as washing packaging and food items.

Grocery items

Although some have elected to let nonperishable food items sit out in the car for 24 hours before taking them inside the house, Ingham says that's not necessary.

"When I bring food home from the grocery store, I set the bag on the floor and go to wash my hands since I've touched a lot of things between the store and my kitchen," she said. "Then I'll put the groceries away in the cupboards or refrigerator or freezer."

The FDA also said there’s no risk in the virus traveling on food surfaces from overseas. “COVID-19 is not transmitted through food or ingredients. Even if surfaces or packaging have been contaminated, the virus will only survive on such surfaces for a short period, therefore there is no risk of contamination,” it said.

Ingham says she also washes her hands again before preparing the food for good measure.

"Even though we don't believe the virus is surviving on those surfaces, it's still a great way to provide ourselves with the reassurance that we're doing everything we can to prevent ourselves and our families from getting sick."

Extra steps?

Consumers bombarded with information on all fronts may have been instructed to even sanitize the packaging before storing food away, including cardboard boxes.

"We don't have any evidence to say that that's necessary," Ingham said. "And it actually might not be a good idea because moisture around food packaging materials can allow for things like mold growth and those types of things."

Ingham recommends that any items touched by human hands, whether it be a cell phone or food from the grocery store, it's important to wash hands as you move from one activity to another – specifically prior to touching foods that you may be preparing or eating.

Fresh produce

Ingham says people shouldn't shy away from eating fruits and vegetables whether canned, fresh or frozen.

"We don't believe the coronavirus would survive on the surface of fresh produce items. However, regardless of the current situation, we always recommend that consumers rinse the outside of fresh produce items before preparing or eating," she said. "That's just a food safety habit that we've had for years. It's a good habit and might even remove from other things that aren't the COVID-19 virus that might be even a little more resilient."

To have and to hoard

With "Safer at Home" orders in place across Wisconsin, many people are concerned about having enough food and personal supplies on hand. Empty shelves and limits on food items are common sights and practices in grocery stores around the world.

Inghan says that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommend laying in a supply to tide a household over for two weeks.

"This is really more to limit us from having to be out at the grocery store, not because they think the food supply is at risk in terms of not having enough food available to us," Ingham said. "It's really to limit our time out and about so we're not interacting with people during this time of social distancing."

Ingham says empty shelves are more of a reflection of people buying more in bulk rather than a breakdown in the supply chain.

"The transportation system, processing system and the retail system that relates to food are very robust," she said. "They working to keep up with the demand so there is food available. It might mean you might have to make slightly different choices in terms of cereal or soup or some of those pantry items you have at this time."