Can I Get Coronavirus from Food?

Health experts reveal whether you can get Covid-19 through food, and they offer food safety tips to help minimize any potential risks.

Imagine this scenario: A stock person is lining shelves with canned beans at the supermarket and suddenly sneezes. If some droplets happen to land on the canned goods, and he or she unknowingly has Covid-19, could you catch it? Could you possibly get it from touching or purchasing these goods?

The short answer: Maybe. In this scenario, aside from the canned beans, other surrounding food items within the sneeze’s firing line could potentially contain these droplets. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, a sneeze can travel up to 100 miles per hour and create as many as 100,000 droplets. (Coughs, another Covid-19 symptom, can travel 50 mph and expel almost 3,000 droplets.) However, it is not a likely scenario. Don’t miss these food safety tips for buying groceries during coronavirus.

view from above of couple grocery shoppingTom Werner/Getty Images

Coronavirus lifespan on surfaces

“While the virus can survive on cardboard up to a day and plastic and stainless steel for up to two [or three] days, it requires many steps in a chain of transmission in order to result in an infection,” says Robert Glatter, MD, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

This means that it’s not that easy to get coronavirus from this route. “It requires enough concentration of the virus, inoculating you via eyes, nose, or mouth,” Dr. Glatter says. “Your body still has a strong defense system; that includes mucous and specialized hairs in your respiratory tract called cilia to prevent the entry of the virus,” he says. Learn more about how you can prevent coronavirus.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is no evidence that food or food packaging can spread coronavirus. “This virus is a respiratory virus, not a [stomach] one,” says Aline M. Holmes, RN, clinical associate professor in the Division of Advanced Nursing Practice at Rutgers School of Nursing in Newark, New Jersey. “The droplets with the virus in them (from coughing or sneezing) must be inhaled through [the] nose or mouth.”

But, when it comes to food safety during Covid-19, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. In just over three months, the novel coronavirus has become a worldwide pandemic, and what health officials know about it is ever-changing. Although the party line is you can’t get Covid-19 through food, health experts advise taking certain precautions to minimize any potential risks.

Cook your food thoroughly

Cooking your food thoroughly can kill any virus, including Covid-19, explains Diane Rigassio Radler, PhD, director for the Institute for Nutrition Interventions at the Rutgers School of Health Professions in Newark, New Jersey. Reheat your takeout in your own dishes for an extra layer of protection. Heat your food up in the oven past 160 degrees Fahrenheit or a few minutes in the microwave, adds Dr. Glatter.

Also, here’s another takeout tip: “It’s a good idea to stay away from take-out salads and sushi for the time being as they can’t be heated up and you don’t know who prepared them,” says Radler. Learn more about the do’s and don’ts of ordering from a restaurant during Covid-19.

Handle takeout and delivery packages with care

Trash any paper or plastic bags or cardboard boxes that your food comes home in, Radler adds. “Wash your hands before and after you touch these materials and also use disinfecting wipes to clean any surface that they came into contact with such as your counter.”

Wiping down cardboard or other packaging isn’t a bad idea either. The virus can survive on these surfaces and result in infection if you touch the bug and then touch your face, Radler says. This advice has always been part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) mantra on food safety: Clean your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before, during and after food prep, and before you eat. Also, clean any surfaces you use while preparing your food. Not convinced? Here’s what can happen when you don’t wash your hands.

Susan Wootton, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with UTHealth and UT Physicians in Houston, urges prudence over panic. “Covid-19 may get on the package, but it won’t live there that long so there is a low risk of infection,” she says. “This is a different dynamic than when someone who sneezes on you while standing in line.” This is why social distancing and face coverings are oh-so-important when running essential errands. Here’s how to make an expert-approved, do-it-yourself (DIY) face mask to limit the spread of Covid-19 and protect yourself.

mother and daughter disinfecting groceries at homevgajic/Getty Images

Don’t share food

Sharing food, even with your “quaranteam,” is another Covid-19 no-no, according to Felicia Wu, PhD, the John A. Hannah distinguished professor in food safety, toxicology and risk assessment in the department of agricultural, food and resource economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Our saliva finds its way into anything we eat and drink and it may contain SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes Covid-19—if we are infected, she explains.

Exercise special care with fruits and vegetables

The CDC’s guidance on washing produce hasn’t changed. But the pandemic does serve as an important reminder of what to do. This includes cutting away any damaged or bruised areas and rinsing fruits and vegetables under running water. And you don’t need to use soap, bleach, or commercial produce washes, the CDC states. Melons, cucumbers and other hard produce items can be scrubbed with a produce brush. Always dry fruits and veggies with a paper towel or clean cloth. The CDC states that there is no need to wash meat, poultry, eggs, or bagged produce marked pre-washed.

Other tips from the CDC for preventing foodborne illness include separating raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods and using separate cutting boards for these foods. It’s also important to chill any perishable food within two hours.

Next, read the coronavirus myths you should stop believing.

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Sources
  • Journal of the Royal Society Interface: "Assessing the airborne survival of bacteria in populations of aerosol droplets with a novel technology"
  • Robert Glatter: MD, an emergency physician, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City.
  • Food and Drug Administration: "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions"
  • Aline M. Holmes, RN, clinical associate professor, Division of Advanced Nursing Practice, Rutgers School of Nursing, Newark, New Jersey
  • Diane Rigassio Radler, PhD, director, Institute for Nutrition Interventions, Rutgers School of Health Professions, Newark, New Jersey
  • CDC: "Food safety"
  • Susan Wootton: MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, UTHealth and UT Physicians, Houston
  • Felicia Wu, PhD, the John A. Hannah distinguished professor in food safety, toxicology and risk assessment in the department of agricultural, food and resource economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.