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Is it safe to cook for others? Common COVID-19 food safety questions answered.

The chasm between home and professional kitchens if often widest with food safety measures. Commercial and restaurant kitchen staff must have food safety certifications in order to work with food that will be consumed by the public. Their very existence depends on an adherence to cleanliness and personal practices that mitigate the transmission of all sorts of bugs. At home it looks different, and that notion leads many people to be wary of accepting food from unfamiliar sources, or non-restaurant kitchens. These resources below have proven to be the most comprehensive answers to many myths and questions surrounding COVID food safety.

Let’s begin with San Francisco-based chef J. Kenji López-Alt, chief culinary consultant at Serious Eats and author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook The Food Lab, based on the column of the same name. López-Alt knows food science inside and out in both restaurant settings and for home cooks. As is to be expected from an empirical researcher like himself, the first stop in uncovering the most current and accurate food safety information yielded excellent results from a variety of reputable sources.

First, López-Alt puts on the page what everyone’s thinking: is it safe to eat food from outside sources? Do I have to disinfect my groceries? Can I safely cook for others from my own kitchen? Can COVID-19 be transmitted through food?

To answer these questions, I referenced dozens of articles and scientific reports and enlisted the help of Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist from the North Carolina State University and cohost of Risky or Not and Food Safety Talk, as well as Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and infection preventionist.

J. Kenji López-Alt, Food Safety and Coronavirus: A Comprehensive Guide

The verdict was yes, it is safe to eat from restaurants and to accept food from others, provided a few precautions are taken, and no, you don’t have to disinfect your groceries. Holding fresh produce under running water and patting dry with a clean kitchen towel is enough (do not [do not] use soap to wash fruits and vegetables) when it is done in conjunction with general food safety practices:

  • Always wash your hands before touching your face. According to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, there is evidence that COVID-19 can spread through “smear” infection, which involves a healthy person touching a recently contaminated surface then touching their face, where they could transfer the virus through their eyes, mouth, or nose. Hand washing before and after handling public surfaces or items that may have been touched by others significantly reduces transmission, since the virus cannot be absorbed through the skin.
  • Practice safe food handling behaviours at home. Disinfect all work surfaces before and after use, thoroughly wash all utensils prior to use, rinse all produce well, wash your hands regularly through preparation, and keep perishable items properly stored in clean containers whenever possible.
  • Transfer outside food onto clean home dishes to eat, and use fresh containers for fridge or freezer storage.

Basic food safety practices appear to be more than sufficient to reduce the risk of transmission from your favourite takeout spot’s container or your culinarily-inclined neighbour, but the looming question remains: Can COVID-19 be transmitted through food? Columbia University’s Dr. Angela Rasmussen comes through with the answer.

[W]hen actively eating—that is, producing saliva, chewing, and swallowing—we are protected from infection in two ways. First, saliva contains proteolytic enzymes—chemicals that break down proteins—which help break down our food and pathogens. Second, the act of chewing and swallowing minimizes the amount of time that any potentially infectious viral load is in contact with mucosa or the upper respiratory tract. The less time a pathogen spends in contact with potentially infectable cells, the lower the likelihood of actual infection.

J. Kenji López-Alt, Food Safety and Coronavirus: A Comprehensive Guide

The body has systems in place for this very purpose. Enzymatic saliva, separate entrances for digestion and respiration, and a mouth designed to break down food away from virally-susceptible areas each point to marvellous evolutionary measures to keep humans safe. For even further evidence that COVID-19 has little power to spread through ingestion, Singapore offers a current study.

It’s been found that most cases are linked to clusters of people, including hotel guests attending conferences, church groups, and shoppers, while none are linked to contaminated food or drink. The fact that every person eats multiple times a day and thus far no link has been found between eating and viral clusters is strong evidence that no such link exists.

J. Kenji López-Alt, Food Safety and Coronavirus: A Comprehensive Guide

So no, there is no evidence to suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted through food. Order away!

The Canadian government has also released its recommendations for best practices for ordering delivery and doing online grocery shopping:

Use these tips to keep you safe when having food delivered to your home.

  • Use contactless payment whenever possible:
    • pay online
    • tap and go
    • mobile payments
  • Ask for contactless delivery if available. Have your food dropped off at the doorstep.
  • Keep your distance from the delivery person (at least 2 arms lengths, approximately 2 metres).
  • Wash your hands after handling the delivery.
  • Put away your groceries, especially items requiring refrigeration.
  • Wash your hands after handling food and food packaging.
  • Use proper food handling practices.

Further instructions on proper food handling procedures can be found here for all different types of food and preparations.

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Posted on

May 6, 2020