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COVID-19 and Food Safety

Published on Jun 23, 2020 and last reviewed on May 23, 2022   -  6 min read


Can you get infected with the new coronavirus from food and food packaging? Theoretically, it's possible. Read the article to know more.

COVID-19 and Food Safety

To date, no evidence has suggested that the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) or its newer variants, 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 was 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.

COVID-19 and Animal Products:

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.

Can COVID-19 Be Transmitted Through Food?

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

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.

A working group of Australia studied the presence of SARS-CoV-2 on various surfaces and found that they were active for about 28 days on the surfaces of paper, glass, and stainless steel at a temperature of 20°C and can survive for about several days on metal surfaces at a even high temperature of about 30°C.

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.

Can COVID-19 Be Transmitted Through Drinking Water?

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.

What Precautions Should You Take While Handling Food Containers and Packaging?

As mentioned earlier, the 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:

  1. Restaurants should encourage no-contact takeout and delivery.

  2. Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer for a minimum of 20 seconds after handling takeout containers.

  3. Make sure you transfer the packaged food to a clean dish and throw the food container in a closed bin.

  4. Do not forget to rewash or sanitize your hands before eating.

  5. You can also reheat your food before consuming it.

  6. After you finish eating, disinfect all surfaces that came in contact with the takeout containers.

How to Handle Grocery Store Produce?

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 are less.

Follow these preventive measures while going to a grocery store:

Ways to Clean Each Grocery Item:

How Can Food Workers Prevent the Spread of COVID-19?

According to the WHO guidelines, at least one meter (three feet) distance has to be maintained between fellow workers. If that is not possible, food hygiene tips for food workers are:

  1. Clean your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after preparing any food.

  2. Chop uncooked meat and fish in separate chopping boards.

  3. Make sure you cook food at the appropriate temperature.

  4. Freeze or refrigerate perishable items.

  5. Dispose of food waste and packages properly and avoid build-up of waste, as it can attract pests.

  6. Use clean plates and utensils.

  7. Disposable gloves should be frequently changed, and hands should be washed in between changing gloves.

  8. Change gloves after opening or closing doors and discard the waste glove in a bin.

  9. If you feel unwell, stay at home and avoid handling food.

  10. Cough and sneeze into bent elbow or tissue.

  11. Get vaccinated.

How to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Food Stores?

Food retailers can prevent the spread of COVID-19 through food displays and surface contact by the following methods:

  1. Set up workstations in a way that prevents food workers from facing each other.

  2. Face masks, disposable gloves, hairnets, and overalls should be provided.

  3. Space out workstations.

  4. Wash and sanitize all utensils and food contact surfaces frequently.

  5. Foodservice workers should frequently wash their hands, gloves must be changed regularly and they must wear a mask at all times.

  6. Frequently clean and sanitize counters, serving condiment containers, and utensils.

  7. Hand sanitizers should be made available for consumers on their way in and out.

  8. Avoid displaying food openly.

  9. Discourage self-service counters for unwrapped bakery products.

  10. Make vaccination compulsory for all.

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 been 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.

How Should the Surfaces of a Food Production Environment Be Sanitized?

Alcohol-based disinfectants, containing Ethanol or Propanol, have shown to be effective against the coronavirus. The concentration should be 70 % to 80%. 1 % Sodium Hypochlorite is also effective.

The new more infectious variants of coronavirus are emerging with slight variations in the symptoms and their contamination capacity. 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, vaccination, personal hygiene and food safety practices will reduce the risk of harmful pathogens from entering the food chain.

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Last reviewed at:
23 May 2022  -  6 min read


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