This spring, at the inception of the pandemic, consumers were quarantining groceries in garages, wiping products with disinfectant and feeling wary of restaurant health practices.
Many people have now begun to feel more comfortable with their food, but there are still many questions as to best food practices as the pandemic rages on.
Fears of contracting COVID-19 from foods are unfounded, according to Byron Chaves, assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said using non-food grade chemicals, such as rubbing alcohol, on food and food packaging may even increase a toxicological risk instead of reducing risk of viral infection.
“There is no scientific or epidemiological evidence that strongly and unequivocally proves that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is transmitted through food,” Chaves said. “At this moment, the food safety science community agrees with (the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture) and international agencies such as (the World Health Organization), that food is not a significant vehicle for the transmission of COVID-19.”
Chaves works with foodborne pathogens – microbes in contaminated food or water that cause illness – and has a large extension appointment, providing training and technical assistance to the food industry in Nebraska and regionally. Through integrated research, teaching and outreach, the goal is to protect food safety and improve public health. COVID-19 is not a foodborne pathogen, Chaves said, but misinformation about how the virus spreads still lingers.
“The main route for contamination and exposure is respiratory droplets and aerosols,” Chaves said. “There is, however, a dangerous and increasingly pervasive school of thought that suggests food as a vehicle and that is fueling unnecessary concerns among consumers and supporting the narrative of trade wars, especially when it comes to meat, poultry, seafood and frozen foods.”
There was particular distrust with meat and produce packing houses during the summer, when 16,233 cases of disease were reported in 239 meat and poultry facilities across 23 states, according to a July report by the CDC. Chaves said the case surges were caused by sociodemographic issues outside the facility such as low literacy rates and living in close quarters and emphasizes infectious viral particles are unlikely to survive in meat production and shelf life long enough to have an effect on the consumer.
“Even if consumed, the viral particles will not withstand passage through the acidity of the stomach,” Chaves said. “What you may potentially find in food samples, as has been reported and exploited by foreign governments for trade war purposes, is the presence of viral RNA, the genetic material that makes this specific virus. However, the sole presence of RNA is by no means an indication that people will get sick.”
Simply put, it’s a difference in biological systems that protects food products from significant risk of viral diseases.
“Coughing over food is disgusting and will be a turn-off for patrons, but the reality is that most microbes you’d expel in a cough or sneeze do not cause disease, and the ones that do, are not able to grow and survive in foods because they are adapted to the respiratory system and not the gastrointestinal system,” Chaves said.
Because of the uncertainty of how the virus is transmitted, consumers have adopted methods such as quarantining and cleaning groceries mainly because it puts them at ease.
“At the beginning of the pandemic there was a now infamous video of a physician teaching people how to wash and wipe down groceries,” Chaves said. “There is no evidence that this is helpful other than for peace of mind. We use the term ‘hygiene theater’ to describe the fact that the actual risk reduction attributed to washing and wiping groceries is minimal compared to handwashing and facial covering, but make people feel better about protecting themselves and their families.”
There are necessary steps people should take when preparing food, but these methods should always be utilized, pandemic or not, Chaves says. He offers these guidelines:
- Wash hands before, during and after handling raw meat, poultry and fresh produce.
- Prevent cross contamination by using separate utensils for raw and ready-to-eat foods.
- Follow label instructions for cooking.
- Always refrigerate promptly.
In restaurant settings, Chaves said employees who follow face covering, social distancing and handwashing procedures will reduce the risk of viral spread to negligible.
Indeed, food service establishments have nearly universally undertaken more precautions – it’s now the norm. Nicco Merritt, junior nutrition major at UNL, works at two Lincoln restaurants – The Oven and Pickleman’s – handling reservations, making food, seating people, cleaning and delivering. His workplaces have new rules – for example, everything from door knobs to menus to salt shakers are sanitized, and face coverings are required at all times.
“Concerns I have about food service are not so much about the spread of the disease,” Merritt said. “I think we can do better in restaurants and take this more seriously, but I think the risk is quite low as long as people try.”
While these basic pandemic precautions are the most feasible changes, Chaves said enclosed establishments with minimal natural ventilation could implement air filtration systems to mitigate airborne virus spread. Otherwise, following basic food safety precautions to minimize cases of other types of dangerous foodborne illnesses should be the focus in food production and handling.
“At this point, getting sick with Salmonella, Shigella, or norovirus continues to be disproportionately more relevant than with COVID-19,” Chaves said.
Chaves encourages consumers to keep up-to-date on new information about the interaction of the virus and food safety. He recommends the multi-institution consortium foodcov.net for science-backed strategies and practices on navigating COVID-19 in the food industry.