As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread with nearly 100,000 confirmed cases globally and more than 100 confirmed cases in the United States, people are increasingly wondering how COVID-19 might affect our food supply and eating habits.
We’ve reached out to some leading food safety and public health experts for their advice. If you’ve been questioning whether to stay home from restaurants or if any foods are unsafe, here’s what you need to know:
Can coronavirus be transmitted through food?
Researchers are still learning the specifics of how COVID-19 is transmitted, but we do know that the disease can spread through droplets that are released from the nose or mouth when someone coughs, sneezes or exhales.
Disease transmission becomes possible when someone inhales these droplets or touches their eyes, mouth or nose after coming into contact with surfaces where these droplets land. As of now, there’s no evidence of COVID-19 transmission through food.
“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” a spokesperson from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service told HuffPost and mentioned in a statement.
“As of now, there’s no evidence of COVID-19 transmission through food.”
Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, explained that because the mode of infection is primarily respiratory, the chance of getting COVID-19 from food is extremely low. “In fact, we don’t see evidence of any respiratory viruses being transmitted through food in the past,” he said.
Are there foods in grocery stores we should avoid?
Since there’s no known transmission of COVID-19 through food, you don’t need to worry about avoiding any foods in particular. A bigger concern when shopping is the risk of coronavirus transmission from person to person.
“If you have people that are sick, you have the possibility for somebody to go into an area like that and transmit,” said Jason Kindrachuck, assistant professor in the department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba.
So yes, there is the possibility of getting sick if someone infected with COVID-19 is standing right beside you and sneezes while you’re both searching for a ripe avocado, or if a droplet from an infected person lands on a package of cereal that you touch and then proceed to touch your face before washing your hands. But we still don’t know how much of the virus needs to be present in order for transmission to occur.
This absolutely doesn’t mean you should stop shopping, but you should be cautious and follow simple protective measures like regularly washing your hands, not touching your nose and mouth if your hands aren’t clean, staying home if you’re sick, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, keeping a distance of at least three feet from people who are coughing or sneezing, and seeing a doctor if you have a fever, cough and trouble breathing.
“One piece of advice I’ve been repeating on a regular basis to people who are concerned is, ‘What are you doing right now to manage your risk from regular flu?’” said Don Schaffner, extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor at Rutgers University. Many of the current recommendations for avoiding transmission of COVID-19 are similar.
Is it safe to eat in restaurants?
In most cases, there’s no reason to avoid visiting a restaurant due to fears of COVID-19 transmission. “It is just the same as it was before we knew about coronavirus,” Schaffner said. “In other words, nothing is absolutely safe.”
Schaffner pointed out that even If the coronavirus is present in your food, it will be destroyed with proper cooking. But as with going to the supermarket, you’ll want to be diligent about taking precautions similar to those recommended to prevent the spread of seasonal flu.
“With an estimated 34,000-plus deaths from flu in 2018-19, we have a long way to go in managing risks,” Chapman said. “The respiratory virus risk in restaurants is really more about being in the same location as a lot of people, some of who can be depositing the virus on surfaces like tables, doors, menus, and managing that with a hand washing and alcohol-based sanitizer regime is an effective step to reduce risks of both COVID-19 and Influenza.”
“One piece of advice I’ve been repeating on a regular basis to people who are concerned is, ‘What are you doing right now to manage your risk from regular flu?’”
Keep in mind that someone who is sick probably isn’t going to be heading out to a restaurant, Kindrachuk said, “so your likelihood of going in and getting sick or getting infected is really, really minimal.”
This is different from going to some sort of large public gathering with tens of thousands of people when there’s a cluster of cases in an area, he pointed out. In that case, the potential for transmission would be higher due to the large number of people.
Most of us know by now that public health advice strongly encourages staying home when sick. But for some restaurant workers, this isn’t an option because of America’s lack of important social services, as Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) pointed out in a recent tweet.
The U.S. is one of a select few countries in the world without a national policy that ensures paid sick leave, leaving many low-wage restaurant workers with little choice but to go to work even when they’re sick. Many are also deterred from seeing the doctor due to being uninsured or having health insurance policies that leave them with expensive bills.
The result is that you could be at risk of transmission when you’re dining out. As HuffPost reporter Emily Peck noted in a recent piece on this topic, this isn’t a coronavirus problem; it’s a policy problem.
Are there any precautions to take when preparing food at home?
The biggest tips to keep in mind when cooking at home are to wash your hands as much as possible and don’t prepare food for others if you’re showing symptoms, unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so.
When handling or preparing food, the government recommends following standard food safety practices, like washing hands and surfaces often, separating raw meat from other foods, refrigerating food, and cooking food to the appropriate temperature.
Do we need to stockpile food to prepare for a possible quarantine?
Food and hand sanitizer have been flying off supermarket shelves as many people grow concerned that the coronavirus outbreak will make it harder to access food in the future. But is this necessary?
Our experts agreed that if possible, it’s not a bad idea to have some non-perishable food on hand in case a situation arises that prevents you from food shopping.
“It’s probably good to have a couple of extra weeks of supplies just so that you don’t have to actually go and frequent these places if there happen to be cases that show up,” Kindrachuk said. But he pointed out that storing enough supplies to last you months is likely going too far.
The recommendation to keep a reserve of food at home is largely based on avoiding crowds and potential disruptions to the food supply due to possible workforce shortages. “It doesn’t have anything to do with a fear of the food supply becoming contaminated,” said Erin DiCaprio, assistant specialist in cooperative extension in community food safety at UC Davis.
If you decide to stock up, make sure to be reasonable with the amount of food you buy, and to use your food supply before it goes bad — food waste is still a problem, even in a time of a disease outbreak. “I would hate for people to buy all of this extra food and then have it be something that goes to waste in the refrigerator,” Dicaprio said.
While you’re resisting the temptation to empty store shelves, remember to exercise this restraint with masks, too. If you’re not coughing or sneezing or caring for someone who is, you probably don’t need to wear one.
“It’s imperative for us to understand that we need our first-line responders, especially those in hospital and clinical settings, to have access to those,” Kindrachuck said. “People need to have some restraint as well and understand that those supplies are going to be needed by the medical community.”
Here’s what else to know.
There are still a lot of unknowns around COVID-19 right now, and the situation can change at any time, but you can find information on COVID-19, how it spreads and its presence in your area through the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and your city and state public health authorities.