FAQ: Can you get the coronavirus from touching or eating food?
Should you be worried that you might contract COVID-19 from handling or eating food?
The short answer, according to experts: no. Here’s what you need to know.
• Can the coronavirus spread through food? There is no evidence that food has been associated with the transmission of the virus, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although more research is still required. “Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission,” the CDC says. In general, the virus causes respiratory illness, not gastrointestinal illness.
• Could I become ill from touching food packaging that is carrying the virus on its surface? Scientists can’t rule out the possibility, but it’s unlikely, according to the CDC and other experts. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the viability of SARS-CoV-2 on various surfaces over time. According to its findings, the virus could survive in detectable amounts in aerosols for up to three hours, on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours.
But Dr. Lee Riley, professor of infectious diseases at UC Berkeley, echoes advice from the CDC, saying it’s unlikely that you’ll pick up the virus from touching any surface. “It’s unusual to get transmission from inanimate object contact,” he says. The main mode of infection is person-to-person contact. While you should remain vigilant about washing your hands after touching surfaces that may have been infected, it’s far more important to limit your contact with other people, Riley says.
• Does cooking kill the virus? Another coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1, is known to be eliminated at cooking temperatures, says Erin Di Caprio, assistant specialist in UC Davis’ food science and technology department. “So we suspect that this virus would have a similar inactivation at normal cooking temperatures.”
• What about freezing or refrigeration? Does that kill the virus? We don’t know. Research has shown that SARS-CoV-1 can survive at refrigerated temperatures, Di Caprio says, but there hasn’t been sufficient research into freezing.
• How should I wash raw, fresh foods, like vegetables? The same way you always would. Ideally, you’re used to washing your hands before you begin cooking, and washing your leafy greens before making a salad. It’s still not known whether a standard cold-water rinse can eliminate the coronavirus, even if the water is chlorinated (as San Francisco’s drinking supply is). Nevertheless, “we’re not recommending any kind of severe treatment with bleach or vinegar or anything like that,” says Di Caprio, just good hand washing as usual.
• But I’m still worried. What if I carried coronavirus into my home on the surface of that soup can? Or the bag of Thai food that just got delivered? “Just wash your hands before you start cooking or eating,” Riley says. Again, there’s no evidence that anyone has contracted the virus from a takeout container.
Bottom line: Keep washing your hands and your food. But there’s no reason to freak out. “I think people need to be reassured that food and things like that will be highly unlikely to be the source of this transmission,” Riley says.
“Nothing is zero risk,” Di Caprio says, “but we have to eat.”