Food safety and COVID-19

Barb Ingham, Extension Food Science Specialist
Department of Food Science
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 263-7383

Total time – 7:17

0:13 – food safety and COVID-19
0:48 – is COVID-19 a foodborne illness
1:29 – questions about COVID-19 and food
1:41 – how safe is takeout food?
2:25 – how safe are grocery items
4:05 – washing food packaging
4:42 – special care for fruits and vegetables?
5:54 – food supply, how much to buy?
7:07 – lead out



Christine Hawkinson: Food safety guidelines during the coronavirus emergency. We’re talking with Barb Ingham, UW-Madison Division of Extension Food Safety Specialist and professor in the Department of Food Science and I’m Christine Hawkinson. Barb, can you tell us what we know so far about food safety and COVID-19.

Barb Ingham: So COVID-19 is caused by one of a family of coronaviruses. It’s a respiratory illness. So the primary route of infection is through airborne virus particles from the droplets of a sneeze or a cough of an infected individual. So if you breathe in virus containing droplets of mucus or saliva from a cough or a sneeze, the virus can multiply in your respiratory tract and make you sick.

Christine Hawkinson: Is COVID-19 going to make us sick through the food that we eat?

Barb Ingham: There is no evidence that COVID-19 is a foodborne illness. So the way we get COVID-19 illness is primarily from breathing in these infected droplets from somebody coughing and sneezing. It doesn’t appear that this happens at all through the food that we eat. While you may get sick from what they refer to as contact transmission – you’re touching a contaminated surface and then transferring those live virus particles into your mouth, or into your nose or rubbing your eyes or smearing your eyes – it really doesn’t look like this is related at all to the food that we eat.

Christine Hawkinson: Even though there isn’t any evidence that food can make you sick, people are still worried.

Barb Ingham: Yes, there are a lot of questions and a lot of information circulating that probably it’s a good idea to address some of those as well.

Christine Hawkinson: So one thing that’s happened, since many restaurants are closed, people want to support those that are still providing takeout or delivery but we have to ask what about takeout food? Is it safe?

Barb Ingham: Yes, it does appear that takeout food appears to be safe. There’s no evidence that the corona virus or COVID-19 illness can come from takeout food, and that we just don’t have any evidence that would tell us that even if somebody coughs on your food, and you bring that food home and you cook it to proper temperatures you’re going to destroy that virus, we do know that. So the virus itself isn’t really that robust in terms of surviving on our food, or proper handling of our food appears to be something that we can remediate the virus in that way.

Christine Hawkinson: What about grocery store items? Do we need to let packaged food like cans of soup or boxes of cereal sit in our car for 24 hours before we bring it into our kitchen?

Barb Ingham: That also is a great question and the answer to that is no. There is some information that circulating that the corona virus may survive on surfaces perhaps for a couple of days. But in order again for us to get sick from the corona virus, we actually have to transfer those virus directly into our mouth into the mucous membranes in our nose and we just don’t see that happening. What we do tell people to do though is to wash their hands and wash their hands a lot more often. So when I bring food home from the grocery store these days, I bring the food in, I set the bags of groceries on my floor in my kitchen, and then I immediately go to wash my hands because I’ve touched a lot of things between the grocery store and my home kitchen. Then I’ll put those groceries away either in the cupboard, if there are shelf stable products, or I might put them in my refrigerator or my freezer. Then actually I wash my hands again. If I’m going to be preparing a meal right away, I might wash my hands, take those foods, then back out of the cupboard or perhaps out of the refrigerator and then I’ll get a cutting board out or whatever and then I might wash my hands again before I touch something like fresh fruits and vegetables which I might not be cooking, I might be preparing in a salad. So even though we don’t think that the virus is surviving on these surfaces, it’s still a great way to provide ourselves with the reassurance we’re doing everything we can to prevent ourselves or our families from getting sick, and that is simply by hand washing.

Christine Hawkinson: Some people have heard that they should wash the outside of food packages before putting them in the cupboard. What do you think about that?

Barb Ingham: We don’t have any evidence to say that that’s necessary and it actually might be not a good idea because moisture around food packaging materials can allow for things like mold growth and, and those types of things. So, our recommendation is if you’ve handled any product, whether it be your cell phone, food from the grocery store, what have you simply to wash your hands as you move from perhaps one activity to another, and specifically, prior to touching food that you might be eating or preparing.

Christine Hawkinson: What about fresh produce, it seems that that’s different do we continue to eat fruits and vegetables.

Barb Ingham: We do want to continue to eat fruits and vegetables, they’re such an important part of a healthy diet. So whether those fruits and vegetables are canned, frozen or fresh, it’s really important for us to eat fruits and vegetables. Again, we don’t think that the corona virus would survive on the surface of fresh produce items. That said, regardless of the situation and definitely prior to the current pandemic, we always recommend that consumers rinse the outside of fresh produce items before either we prepare them or we eat them. So an apple that you may be slicing for kids for a snack, rinse the outside of that apple scrub it a little bit if you can. Apples, you can berries you wouldn’t be able to do that with but rinse the outside with clear water. Let the produce item drain a little bit dry it off with a with a dry paper towel that helps to prevent spoilage and then go ahead and prepare those apples or just go ahead and munch on them directly. But that’s been a food safety habit that we’ve had just for years. It’s a good one and it might remove some other things that aren’t the COVID-19 virus that might be a little bit more resilient.

Christine Hawkinson: As we all know that there’s been a concern about supplies to empty grocery store shelves mean that we’re running out of food, how much how much food should we buy at a time?

Barb Ingham: Well, the Center for Disease Control is recommending that we have about a two-week supply on hand. And this is more to limit us from having to be out at the grocery store. That’s not because they think the food supply is at risk in terms of not having enough food available to us. But just so that we’re limiting our time out and about so that we’re not interacting with people in this time of some social distancing that we’re doing. We do know that the food industry is an essential industry. And when we’re seeing perhaps some areas of the grocery store where the shelves might be not stocked as well as we’re expecting. That’s more an indication of the fact that we are buying more in bulk than we have at other times. And those shelves are being replenished. The transportation system, the processing system, and the retailing system that relate to food are very robust. They’re working to keep up with demand and so there is food available, it just may mean that you might have to make slightly different choices in terms of cereal or soup or some of those pantry items that you have at this time.

Christine Hawkinson: We have been talking with Barb Ingham UW-Madison Division of Extension Food Safety Specialist and professor in the Department of Food Science and I’m Christine Hawkinson.