Food safety and coronavirus


By Pat Brinkman - OSU Extension



Do I need to worry about food safety in regard to coronavirus? Specifically, can food become contaminated with coronavirus and thereby infect people?

There have been no reports of this happening.

As of this time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is unaware of any instances suggesting that coronavirus, COVID-19, has been transmitted by foods. This includes meats, fruits, and vegetables. Moreover, the USDA has created a website dedicated to answering questions regarding food, food safety, and COVID-19.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that include the common cold, severe illnesses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), all of which can infect both humans and animals, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. Symptoms range from mild to severe respiratory illness. Advanced age or conditions such as various cancers, COPD, asthma, heart disease, and diabetes are associated with an increased severity of COVID-19 infections and fatality rates.

Coronaviruses transmit person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, said Qiuhong Wang, a scientist and coronavirus researcher with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake,” she said. “The virus can also transmit by touching an object or surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth or eyes before washing your hands.”

Experimental studies with a bovine coronavirus have shown that the virus can be stable on the surface of lettuce, said Linda Saif, a scientist and coronavirus researcher at CFAES and Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Coronaviral RNA was detectable on the lettuce surface for 30 days, and infectious bovine coronavirus was detected on the lettuce surface for at least 14 days after inoculation,” said Saif, who is a world-renowned expert on coronaviruses. “However, from experience with previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS, the transmission through food consumption is not likely to occur.”

Further, the transmission through foods is not possible if the foods are cooked properly since coronaviruses are inactivated by heat, much like other human pathogens, Saif said.

“There is no information whether COVID-19-infected food handlers could contaminate uncooked produce that is not further treated,” Saif said.

Although consumers should not be too worried about COVID-19 transmissions from food, everyone should follow good hygiene practices when preparing foods to lessen their chances of contracting the virus from other sources, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, CFAES’ outreach arm.

“It’s important to protect yourself and your loved ones that may be at risk from the severe form of COVID-19,” Ilic said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wash their hands often; refrain from touching their mouth, nose, and eyes; and use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.”

“In addition, everyone should avoid crowded spaces and any contact with people that may be infected.”

Cleaning surfaces is also important, she said.

A recent study found that coronaviruses can persist up to nine days on inanimate surfaces such as metal or plastic, according to the Journal of Hospital Infection. Coronaviruses persist longer at lower temperatures and when the humidity is higher. Surface disinfection with 0.1% sodium hypochlorite or 62%–71% ethanol significantly reduces the infectivity of coronavirus on surfaces within one minute of contact.

“As with any food safety measures, you should always wash your hands before, during, and after food preparation and before you eat any foods,” Ilic said. “Additionally, you should be sure to carefully wash any surfaces used for food preparation.”

When handling raw meats, fish, and poultry, keep them separate from other foods, cook them to the correct temperature, and refrigerate the cooked foods within two hours of preparation. This is because bacteria that can cause food poisoning multiply the quickest between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, Ilic said.

Always use a food thermometer to ensure that your meat is cooked to the correct internal temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella, according to the USDA.

For meats such as steak and pork, that temperature is 145 degrees. For ground meats—including beef, pork, veal, and lamb—the correct temperature is 160 degrees, the USDA says. And poultry such as chicken and turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Other food safety tips from the USDA can be found here.

At restaurants and retailers—particularly those that offer buffet-style foodservice—be mindful to protect yourself and others, Ilic said.

“Avoid touching the fresh produce, and make sure you never cough or sneeze in or around fresh produce display refrigerators,” Ilic said. “Don’t serve yourself at the buffet without washing your hands first, and avoid coughing or sneezing around self-serve or buffet foods.” (Author: Turner, T. (2020). Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.)

Pat Brinkman is the Family and Consumer Sciences Educator for Ohio State University Extension Fayette County.

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By Pat Brinkman

OSU Extension