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Editor's note 3/22: This story and headline have been updated to emphasize that COVID-19 is not currently considered a foodborne illness, but under the right conditions, the virus could survive on certain foods.
Research has confirmed the coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces, like plastic and metal, for days. But it turns out food can also be an adequate environment for the contagious respiratory illness to survive on.
While there’s no evidence that the coronavirus is a foodborne illness, experts say uncooked foods like deli meats, salads, and fruits can be susceptible to the contagion if exposed, handled, or prepared without the proper safety precautions.
“It's not very likely that this is going to get transmitted by food in particular, but more likely the surfaces that food is being prepared on and things like that,” Dorothy Tovar, a PhD candidate in Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University told VICE News. “It's definitely possible that if you had a salad prepared by someone who was sick and didn't wash their hands, the virus may be transmitted through food in that way.”
Cities and states across the U.S., like New York and Illinois, have recently announced lockdowns of varying severity to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 15,000 people and killed 202 others in the country alone. But governments have deemed places like grocery stores and takeout restaurants “essential,” which allows them to continue operating so people can buy and deliver food in the weeks to come.
But some of these foods, if exposed, can be a great home for the coronavirus to thrive.
“Moist, semi-solid foods are a wonderful medium for microbes and can boost the longevity of the virus,” said Dr. Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “It’s as good of an environment for the virus as your mouth.”
Experts had some basic tips for people to follow.
- Avoid uncooked and open-air meals, like from a food truck or buffet.
- Don’t use unfamiliar utensils.
- Wash fruit and vegetables.
- Cook food at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which neutralizes the virus.
- Buy packaged foods when possible (if you can live with the environmental impact).
To start, deli meats, produce, and open-air meals are particularly vulnerable. The virus can last up to five days on these products, according to Caravanos. The microbe can also be a threat to humans if it finds its way onto everyday metal and plastic items, such as forks, spoons, and knives. The virus can live up to 72 on these surfaces, according to a recent study from the University of California. Caravanos said that the virus can survive on glass surfaces for up to 48 hours.
“The danger here is really from potentially infected people handling shared utensils, and then you getting your own food and not washing your hands afterward,” Tovar said. “Going on to touch your mouth, nose or eyes afterward guarantees transmission.”
“It’s as good of an environment for the virus as your mouth.”
States and cities have been proactive about shutting down restaurants, especially buffets and other communal dining options, which will help curb the spread of the disease. As part of their lockdown, cities in states like California, Maryland, Colorado, New York, and others have also limited restaurants to take out and delivery.
Another potential place where the coronavirus may have longevity is on foods with tougher, sometimes disposable exteriors, such as bananas and other fruits and vegetables. On these surfaces, Caravanos said the virus can last up to four days.
“If someone coughs on an apple at the Trader Joe's and you touch it, chances are you're going to get it on your fingers and may infect yourself,” he said. “Eating it is going to be risky unless you thoroughly wash it.”
Meats, as well as most other cooked meals, are not nearly as vulnerable. Caravanos mentioned that ultraviolet radiators, which emit bacteria-killing rays and are commonly used by restaurants after closing, have been effective at eradicating surface viruses. That’s part of the reason why scientists are looking into whether UV rays from the sun can be effective in destroying coronavirus microbes.
But even if a restaurant cooks your food, it’s still vulnerable during the delivery process. The bags and boxes that food comes in can still be a decent host for the virus.
“If you're going to get takeout or getting Doordash delivery, you're still slightly exposing yourself to like other people who may or may not be infected,” she said. “So to the best of your ability, go to the grocery store, get enough stuff for you to be able to eat for two weeks to 30 days.”
People may want to forego delivery altogether and prepare their own food. Pre-packaged food is also a good option.
“I know it's not ecological or green, but tomatoes that are wrapped and apples and packages and bags of onions always will offer that extra level of protection,” Caravanos said. “Salad in a bag at this time is probably a better bet than an exposed head of lettuce. It’s all about sanitation.”
As grocery stores around the country remained open, many of them have done their part in trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Some grocery store chains like Kroger’s and Walmart have instated limited business hours, while stores like Costco and Trader Joe’s are limiting the number shoppers allowed in at one time in the interest of social distancing.
Others, like Target and Whole Foods have hours set aside to serve the elderly and immunodeficient.
Cover: Close-up of Reuben sandwich at Mendocino Farms sandwich shop using plant-based vegan pastrami deli meat from startup Unreal Deli, San Ramon, California, February 8, 2020. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)