Food and COVID-19: What experts say you should do to protect yourself

When it comes to food and COVID-19, there are two major factors to consider.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has people around the world thinking about food — how to get food, how to prepare food, and how to keep themselves from catching and becoming ill from COVID-19 while eating food.

If you're worried about coronavirus in the kitchen, experts say there are two major factors you need to consider to protect yourself.

Jill Crittenden, a research scientist and molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had food on the mind when, last week, she rushed to put together a food safety guide in partnership with the Cambridge Public Health Department.

“Because I realized that early mitigation of viral spread has the most impact on flattening the curve, and I realized that most people in our community are naive to how to employ sterile-technique to mitigate viral spread, I have been working around the clock since Wednesday night to share everything I know,” Crittenden tells Inverse.

What Crittenden knows, as well as the most up-to-date advice regarding food and COVID-19 from national agencies, is explained here.

When it comes to food and COVID-19 there are two major factors to consider: the importance of hygiene, and the power of heat.

Can COVID-19 be passed through food?

So far, there is no evidence that food is “a likely source or route of transmission of the virus,” according to the European Food Safety Authority, an agency of the European Union.

That conclusion is largely informed by the fact that when previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses happened, like SARS-COV and MERS-COV, transmission through food consumption did not occur.

Still, other experts say it’s not a bad idea to take some precautions. The virus likely jumped from bats to another animal host before humans, so it is possible that the intermediate host could have been a domestic food animal, says the World Health Organization. That’s why the WHO advises that “as a general rule, the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided.”

Harvard University gives similar advice on avoiding raw or undercooked meat on its “coronavirus resource center.” But Harvard’s advice has more to do with potential transmission from other people, rather than transmission through an animal source.

Because the virus that causes COVID-19 has been detected in the stool of certain people, the University notes that we “cannot rule out the possibility” of infection being transmitted through food via someone who has not properly washed their hands.

"The virus would likely be killed by cooking."

However, Harvard notes that “in the case of hot food, the virus would likely be killed by cooking.”

Uncooked foods, like salads or sandwiches, may still be vectors if the person who has prepared them has not been hygienic.

The power of heat

So, in this case, how hot is hot enough? While data on heat and COVID-19 explicitly isn’t available yet, Crittenden says that research on other coronaviruses gives us a framework to work with.

Studies that examined SARS-COV found boiling or cooking it at 132.8 degrees Fahrenheit kills the virus. That’s because coronaviruses are thermolabile — they can be deactivated by heat. And if what we know about MERS-COV is any indication, they can remain viable for up to 72 hours when refrigerated.

Put into practice, Crittenden says you could either choose to boil your food for a few minutes, or expose food to “just-too-hot-to-touch” temperatures for 15 to 30 minutes.

When it comes to takeout, she recommends that you heat your food — even if it arrives hot — until it is too hot to touch.

The importance of hygiene

Because the main vehicle of COVID-19 transmission is from close contact with infected people, the most important factor to consider when it comes to food is hygiene.

To achieve safe hygiene, there are steps that both the people preparing food at restaurants for take-out and people ordering take-out can take to make the process safer for everyone.

Thorough cooking will kill the virus — but it can be passed on through contact with surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment advises that, because coronaviruses can generally reach cutlery or dishes through an infected person sneezing or coughing, proper kitchen cleaning is key.

They also note that the virus should be rendered inactive if dishes are washed and dried in a dishwasher at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher

Proper hand hygiene, safe food practices, and avoiding close contact with anyone showing signs of respiratory illness are other standard ways to prevent people getting ill from pre-prepared food.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland also advises that restaurant workers prioritize washing their hands over wearing gloves — which, unless executed perfectly, can create a whole new host of problems in the kitchen.

The United States Food & Drug Administration, meanwhile, instructs people who handle food to always follow four key steps of food safety: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

If you’re nervous about receiving food ordered from a restaurant, Crittenden has some advice:

  • Put the container on a surface that you can easily sanitize afterward, and discard the delivery bag into the trash.
  • Wash your hands with soap after touching the bag and removing any containers.
  • Move the food to a clean bowl or pan that can be heated, ideally without touching the container.
  • Throw away the container.
  • Wash your hands again, and wipe down the area where the container was.
  • Heat your food again, and enjoy.

If anything, these extra precautions can give you some peace of mind even if you aren't sure what’s going on at the restaurant’s end — and can allow you to keep supporting local businesses during a particularly difficult time.

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