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Coronavirus COVID-19

COVID-19 Advisory: WSU Extension is working to keep our communities safe. All Extension programming is being provided virtually, postponed, or canceled. Effective March 16, 2020, WSU Extension county offices and WSU Research & Extension Centers will be closed to the public. We are available via email, phone, and webconference.

Food Safety

Program Contact: Kate Ryan
(425) 357-6024 • kate.ryan@wsu.edu

COVID-19 Pandemic and Your Food

Original article by Stephanie Smith, published April 4, 2020 in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of you may be wondering if SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the pandemic), can be transmitted through food and cause human illness. Moreover, a recently published study showed that SARS-CoV-2 was detectable for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, which may make you wonder if food packages, shelves and storage containers in the stores can make you ill.

You will be happy to know that the USDA has stated that there is no evidence to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted to people through food or food packaging, regardless of where the food item originated from. Moreover, according to the CDC, SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus that is spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets, and the virus cannot grow or reproduce on surfaces. Consumption of the virus through food will likely result in destruction of the virus as it passes through the gastrointestinal tract. Although it may be possible that a person can become infected by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes, this is not the primary way the virus will spread. Overall, there is a very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.

Despite these reassuring facts, it is still important to follow good hygiene practices when shopping and preparing food at home. Always wash your hands properly before, during, and after preparing food, after using the toilet, before and after caring for someone who is sick, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. Use plain soap and water and scrub the back and palms of your hands, wrists, and under your nails for at least 20 seconds. Rinse your hands, then dry with a clean towel. This is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent yourself from becoming infected. Keep your hands away from your face, eyes and nose, especially after touching surfaces that may be contaminated in the store or in your home.

Always wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter-tops with hot, soapy water. Cleaning a surface with soap and water, then rinsing, is the first step before disinfection, as many disinfectants will not work properly if a surface contains a lot of dirt. Counter-tops and other household surfaces, such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, toilets, faucets and sinks can be disinfected using household products such as Clorox wipes.  The EPA website has a list of approved disinfectants effective against Coronavirus.

If using a commercially produced household disinfectant, be sure to follow the directions on the label for disinfecting surfaces. Most disinfectants will require that the surface remains wet with the product for an extended period. You will need to ensure that the product remains wet on the surface for the time indicated on the label for disinfection.

A simple bleach solution (bleach strength of 5.25-6.25%) of 4 tablespoons to one-quart of water is also very effective and less costly. You can also use alcohol solutions that contain at least 70% alcohol. However, please remember that alcohol is flammable, and the surface will need to be kept away from excessive heat or flames until it dries. Be sure to wash dirty cloths and towels in your washing machine often using hot water.

If you are sick, do not prepare food for other household members. The CDC recommends that ill people should eat in their own room, away from others, if possible. When preparing food, be sure to wash fruits and vegetables under running water. Do not use soap, bleach, or commercial produce washes as these are no more effective than running water and often have not been approved for household use on food. Always scrub produce with firm skins (such as cucumbers and potatoes) using a clean produce brush. Produce can be dried using a clean towel or paper towel. Currently, there is not enough data to indicate if cooking or refrigeration will kill SARS-CoV-2.  However, given the limited duration of survival on surfaces, it is unlikely that the virus will survive on food packaging for longer than 24 hours.

By following these tips, you can further reduce the risk of becoming infected or spreading SARS-CoV-2. For more information on Coronavirus and food, visit https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus or https://extension.wsu.edu/foodsafety/covid-19-resources/.

Dr. Stephanie Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food specialist for Washington State University Extension. She can be reached at food.safety@wsu.edu.  If you have a food safety question you would like to see appear in this column, send your question to us at food.safety@wsu.edu.