Can you get infected with the new coronavirus from food and food packaging? Theoretically, it's possible. Read the article to know more.
To date, no evidence suggests that the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which is the virus responsible for the current COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) pandemic, is spread through food, water, and domestic food-producing animals (chickens, fish, other poultry, pigs, cattle, and camels). With the help of nucleic acid sequence analysis, the reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 is believed to be bats. But still, no proof or evidence shows direct bat-to-human transmission, which is why scientists believe that other wild animals might also act as intermediate hosts.
It is crucial to find which animal contributed to the initial infection in humans, to prevent future outbreaks. With exotic animals found in live markets and rural populations depending on wild meat, animals that look otherwise healthy can still harbor deadly viruses. Uncooked meat, improper handling of meat, milk, etc., can all contain viruses, which is how diseases like Brucellosis, Salmonella, and Ebola spread. Foodborne transmission of COVID-19 has not been reported yet, but it is wise to avoid raw and undercooked meat and other food items of animal origin.
As SARS-CoV-2 needs live cells to multiply, it cannot thrive in food items. But, it can still survive on the surface of the meat and other animal products for some time, which is why it is important to store meat properly to prevent cross-contamination, before and after cooking. Be careful while eating frozen food, as viruses can survive at -20℃ for around two years. Properly cook frozen food before consumption.
The spread of COVID-19 is highly unlikely from food or food packaging. All respiratory infections, including COVID-19, are primarily transmitted through infected respiratory droplets that are generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. You can get infected by coming in direct contact with these droplets. As these respiratory droplets are too heavy, they do not travel very far and fall on other surfaces and objects nearby. If you touch such contaminated surfaces and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you can potentially get infected.
Recent studies also showed the virus to remain viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and steel surfaces, up to 4 hours on copper, and up to a day on cardboard. Based on this data, food packages and containers can still harbor viable viruses, if an infected person handled it. And if you touch such packages and then touch your face, mouth, or nose, theoretically, you can still get infected. But, the thing to remember here is, these surface studies were conducted in a controlled environment in a lab, which might not really apply to the real-life environment. Temperature and humidity will have an impact on how viable the virus is, and it’s capacity to cause infection.
This being said, it is still crucial for workers in the food industry and you at home to practice strict personal and food hygiene. This will reduce the risk of food and food packaging from becoming contaminated with the virus.
Scientists have not detected the virus that causes COVID-19 in drinking water. Water treatment plants can be used to filter and disinfect water before you use it in your home.
As mentioned earlier, the new coronavirus can be present on the food container or packaging if it was handled by an infected person, but the virus’s capacity to infect you is still not clear. Some precautionary measures that can be taken are:
Restaurants should encourage no-contact takeout and delivery.
Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer for a minimum of 20 seconds after handling takeout containers.
Make sure you transfer the packaged food to a clean dish and throw the food container in a closed bin.
Do not forget to rewash your hands before eating.
You can also reheat your food before consuming it.
After you finish eating, disinfect all surfaces that came in contact with the takeout containers.
SARS-CoV-2 can linger on fruits and vegetables if staff in the grocery store are infected, or an infected person handled them. But again, the chances of you getting infected through this indirect contact is still not known.
Follow these preventive measures while going to a grocery store:
Wear a mask before entering the store.
Avoid handshakes and all other physical contacts.
If possible, use alcohol wipes and disinfect grocery cart handles or basket handles.
Make sure you carry a hand sanitizer and use it before entering and after exiting the store.
Maintain at least 6 feet distance from others in the store, including the staff and cashier.
If you chose to wear gloves while shopping, wear them while entering the store and discard it as soon as you exit the store. Do not touch your phone, keys, face, mouth, and nose while wearing the gloves.
As soon as you reach home, unpack your groceries while wearing a mask and clean everything you bought.
Wash your hands properly, discard your mask (or wash your mask if it is reusable), and wash your hands again.
Fruits and Vegetables - Run the fruits and vegetables under tap water for about 20 seconds. Do not dump your veggies in a dishwasher. If you like, you can add turmeric, rock salt, or baking soda to the water, but there is no scientific proof to show it gets rid of the virus. Never use hand sanitizers, chemical disinfectants, soap, and alcohol-based wipes, as they can irritate your stomach lining if consumed in large quantities, and can result in vomiting and diarrhea.
Eggs - Thoroughly rinse the eggs with water, wipe then dry with a clean cloth, and then store them.
Biscuits and Other Plastic Packages - You can wipe these with alcohol-based wipes before storing, as you will not be eating the packages.
Water Cans - Make sure you clean the can under running tap water before removing the seal. This will clean all the nooks and crannies. Do not open the bottle until it is completely dry.
According to the WHO guidelines, at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance has to be maintained between fellow workers. If that is not possible, food hygiene tips for food workers are:
Clean your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after preparing any food.
Chop uncooked meat and fish in separate chopping boards.
Make sure you cook food at the appropriate temperature.
Freeze or refrigerate perishable items.
Dispose of food waste and packages properly and avoid build-up of waste, as it can attract pests.
Use clean plates and utensils.
Disposable gloves should be frequently changed, and hands should be washed between gloves change.
Change gloves after opening or closing doors and discarding waste in a bin.
If you feel unwell, stay at home and avoid handling food.
Cough and sneeze into bent elbow or tissue.
Food retailers can prevent the spread of COVID-19 through food displays and surface contact by:
Set up workstations in a way that prevents food workers from facing each other.
Face masks, disposable gloves, hairnets, and overalls should be provided.
Space out workstations.
Wash and sanitize all utensils and food contact surfaces and frequently.
Foodservice workers should frequently wash their hands, gloves must be changed regularly, and they must wear a mask at all times.
Frequently clean and sanitize counters, serving condiment containers, and utensils.
Hand sanitizers should be made available for consumers on their way in and out.
Avoid displaying food openly.
Discourage self-service counters for unwrapped bakery products.
If a worker shows symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, and breathing difficulties, he or she should avoid going to work and stay home. In case a worker has tested positive for COVID-19, all employees should be quarantined, and all the surfaces that the person has come in contact with should be disinfected with 70 to 80 % alcohol-based disinfectant.
Alcohol-based disinfectants, containing Ethanol or Propanol, have shown to be effective against the new coronavirus. The concentration should be 70 to 80 %. 1 % Sodium Hypochlorite is also effective.
The information available on SARS-CoV-2 is limited, and most of the characteristics and behavior of this virus are based on the information available on other strains of coronavirus (SARS and MERS). In spite of the belief that this virus originated in bats and spread to other animals used for food, there is no proof of transmission through the food chain. However, personal hygiene and food safety practices will reduce the risk of harmful pathogens from entering the food chain.
Last reviewed at:
23 Jun 2020 - 6 min read
MBBS, MD, GENERAL MEDICINE, DM, cardiology(CONSULTANT CARDIOLOGIST)
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