Food Safety, Shopping & COVID-19: What You Should And Shouldn’t Be Doing

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Shoppers queue to pay at a supermarket in Tokyo on April 6, 2020. (AFP Photo)

With online delivery slots fully booked for days ahead in big cities, doing shopping runs has been a necessity lately. Although people are trying to keep these trips to a bare minimum, contact with the outside world is inevitable, even if you are having groceries delivered to your doorstep. This is raising many questions about how safe grocery shopping is and whether the bags and containers could potentially expose people to the virus.

These concerns have largely stemmed from the fact that the novel virus can survive on some surfaces for a few days, leaving many worried when unpacking groceries at home.

But what are the chances of contracting the virus from packaging or food itself? What must we do when preparing food to minimize risks? Here’s what the experts say.

But what about those instances where viruses were found in infected people’s feces?

There is no evidence yet that COVID-19 sickens people through their digestive systems. According to Stout, the presence of the virus in the stool is more likely a reflection of systemic infection, rather than its ability to survive the digestive tract.

When it comes to food and COVID-19, experts say the biggest risk is not the things you eat but rather contact with other customers and employees in grocery stores. It’s why stores are limiting the number of people they let in, asking customers to practice social distancing and using tape to mark how far apart people should stand.

In short, you should be worrying more about contracting salmonella from chicken or eggs, and E. coli from improperly washed romaine lettuce than the coronavirus.

To wash or not to wash

While you should be washing all the fruit and vegetables you buy in plenty of water (warning do not use liquid detergent to wash food), there are some food items that do not need to be washed.

You should never wash meat, chicken or fish. Simply touching raw meat or poultry, or rinsing it under the tap, spreads bacteria in the sink, on countertops and other kitchen surfaces – via your hands as well as splashed water. Contrary to popular belief, water also does not remove pathogenic microorganisms.

Eggs also shouldn’t be washed before placing them in the refrigerator as it allows bacteria to move from outside of the shell to the inside.

Speaking of raw foods, raw and cooked foods should be kept apart, and you shouldn’t use the same cutting board for both meat and salad. The same goes for kitchen utensils and worktops. Immediately after using them, you should clean them with dish soap and hot water. And regardless of the coronavirus, to save yourself from food poisoning, be sure to cook and/or heat foods at a sufficient temperature, at least 72 Celsius (161 Fahrenheit) for two minutes can help.

On the topic of markets, experts recommend you keep your hands to yourself as much as possible and avoid touching your face when shopping. Although stores and supermarkets are taking all necessary measures to ensure sterilization, people should be wary about surfaces that are constantly touched by people, such as trolleys or elevator buttons.

Here are a few rules to follow when shopping in-person at stores.

Do not go to the supermarket if you are sick, order online.

Make sure you keep a distance of at least 2 meters (6 feet) from other shoppers.

Do not touch the items you do not intend to buy.

Go shopping in less busy hours, do not go in the hours designated for the elderly.

Have a list of the items you want and be prepared; get in and get out as quickly as possible.

Pay by credit or debit card or try contactless payment.

Is food packaging safe?

As for packaging-associated risks, there have been no cases of COVID-19 contamination from containers to date, but experts say the risk should be considered in theory and precautions should be taken. However, they add that as long as you make sure you wash your hands after every time you touch packaging, you won’t need additional measures.

When you bring foods into your house, you can put them away directly or use gloves to open the packaging. The important point here is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before and after unpacking your groceries.

When you are done unpacking, you should throw away or recycle the materials or clean them well. Cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces where the packaging was placed is also a good practice.

If you are still worried about getting infected from food packaging, experts say to keep your hands away from your face and washing your hands before and after every step of work should be more than sufficient.

Can I get COVID-19 from food?

Now, let’s address the food debate.

There is a reason why health officials are not warning people about eating food contaminated with the new coronavirus. The answer has to do with the varying paths organisms take to make people sick.

Respiratory viruses like the new coronavirus generally attach to cells in places like the lungs. Germs like norovirus and salmonella can survive the acid in stomachs, then multiply after attaching to cells inside people’s guts.

“Specializing in what tissues to attach to is typically part of the disease’s strategy to cause illness,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts say it may also be harder for viruses to survive on food itself.

“It’s a porous surface. The chances of anything surviving or coming out of it are small,” said Alison Stout, an expert in infectious diseases and public health at Cornell University.

 

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