From the stock clerk in the grocery store to the delivery person transporting your takeout, your food meets a multitude of hands before it tops your plate. If one of those handlers is harboring the novel coronavirus, can the food become contaminated — and then infect you?
Here, Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist and associate chair and professor of health science at Ball State University, clears up the confusion around catching coronavirus from raw food and offers tips on how you can avoid actual foodborne illnesses that may impair your immune system.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Can Coronavirus Spread Through Food?
Though there's still much to learn about the novel coronavirus, scientists and medical professionals seem to be in consensus about one thing — catching COVID-19 from food is highly unlikely.
In fact, to date, there is zero evidence to support the idea that the virus spreads through food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the USDA and the World Health Organization.
Based on what we know about viruses like COVID-19, they replicate in the respiratory tract, not the GI tract, as explained in a February 2018 overview in Current Opinion in Virology. This type of transmission — through a respiratory route — is unlike foodborne illnesses, which infect you when you eat or drink something polluted with pathogens (more on this later).
How the Novel Coronavirus Spreads
The highly contagious coronavirus circulates from person to person predominantly via tiny respiratory droplets expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks, Khubchandani tells LIVESTRONG.com. These infectious droplets then find their way into the mouths or noses of those nearby, who may also breathe them into their lungs, per the CDC.
"However, based on recent evidence, we also believe that those without symptoms can spread the infection," Khubchandani explains. That means just being in close quarters with (aka less than six feet away from) an infected individual can put you at risk.
Even if they're not coughing or sneezing, sick people can transmit the virus simply through breathing or talking, which becomes even more problematic when you take into account that it can live in the air for a few hours, Khubchandani says.
You can also catch coronavirus by coming into contact with a soiled surface or object and then touching your own mouth, nose or eyes. In fact, a March 2020 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that COVID-19 could survive on plastic surfaces for up to three days.
For this reason, you should be cautious when handling groceries and takeout food. Though you're unlikely to catch the coronavirus from the food itself, there's a small probability that you can pick up the pathogen from plastic packaging.
To be safe, wipe down all food packaging and containers with disinfectant, then thoroughly scrub your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, the amount of time prescribed by the CDC.
What You Need to Know About Foodborne Illnesses
Unlike the coronavirus, foodborne viral infections like hepatitis A and the norovirus spread by eating or drinking contaminated food and water, per the FDA.
While viruses can be the source of foodborne illnesses, "among infectious disease agents, the top causes are mostly bacterial: Campylobacter, Salmonella, Clostridium and Staphylococcus," Khubchandani says.
Leaving food out at room temperature for too long can encourage the growth of these dangerous bacteria. Indeed, these perilous pathogens produce most rapidly between 40°F and 140°F, a range of temperatures coined the "Danger Zone," per the USDA. In the danger zone, the number of bad-for-you bacteria can increase twofold in just 20 minutes.
Though the American food supply is by-and-large safe, "unfortunately, these disease agents are still present in a wide variety of food items," Khubchandani says.
The foods most likely to be contaminated include raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, shellfish and unpasteurized milk, according to the CDC. Fruits and veggies are also vulnerable to disease-causing germs.
And once you've consumed something contaminated, these malevolent microbes may make you sick with symptoms ranging from mild GI discomfort to serious life-threatening illness. For the most part, foodborne illnesses make you weak and dehydrated and, as a result, temporarily diminish the body's natural defenses, Khubchandani says.
And though, traditionally, sick people don't pass foodborne pathogens on to others, infected individuals can contaminate foods, according to Khubchandani.
Additionally, there's some evidence that foodborne illnesses may transmit directly from person to person through feces and water, though additional research is needed, he says.
How You Can Avoid Foodborne Illness
While dealing with a foodborne infection is never fun, now more than ever — as we contend with the COVID-19 pandemic — we should be taking steps to steer clear of anything that may impede our immune system and increase our risk of getting sick.
These four simple safety strategies by the CDC will help you dodge diseases caused by foodborne germs:
1. Clean using hot, soapy water: Wash your hands before and after preparing food, scrub kitchen surfaces often (like cutting boards and countertops) and clean utensils that came into contact with raw foods before reusing them. For fresh fruits and veggies, rinse thoroughly under running water.
2. Separate: To avoid cross-contamination between foods, separate them. Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs away from other foods in your cart while grocery shopping and in your fridge at home. Use different utensils, cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
3. Cook to the right temperature: Use a thermometer to cook foods to a safe internal temperature hot enough to kill disease-causing germs: 160°F for ground meats, 165°F for poultry and 145°F for fish.
4. Chill: Refrigerate perishable food within two hours at 40°F or below (if it's warm outside, food shouldn't be away from the fridge for more than an hour). When thawing frozen foods, defrost in the fridge, microwave or in cold water. Never thaw foods on the counter at room temperature (i.e. the danger zone) because bacteria will multiply quickly in this environment.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- Current Opinion in Virology: “Transmission routes of respiratory viruses among humans.”
- FDA: What You Need to Know about Foodborne Illnesses
- USDA: "’Danger Zone’ (40 °F - 140 °F).”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Foods That Can Cause Food Poisoning.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Four Steps to Food Safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How COVID-19 Spreads.”
- USDA: “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).”
- World Health Organization: “Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19).”