Food safety and COVID-19: Do we need to worry about food packaging?
By Karly Harrison
FoodWIse Coordinator, Florence, Forest, Oneida, Vilas Counties
WISCONSIN – Recent stories in the news have prompted questions about the survival of coronavirus on food packaging surfaces. Laboratory studies have shown that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for up to several days and China has recently banned food imports from several countries after finding viral RNA on food packaging.
Is this a concern? As we continue to learn more about the coronavirus, the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the primary spread is by respiratory droplets from person-to-person. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching surfaces or objects that have the virus on it and then touching the inside of the mouth or nose, and possibly their eyes; however, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. There is no current evidence that COVID-19 spreads through surface transfer. The viral RNA that has been found on food packaging surfaces is not the same as finding the infectious particles of COVID-19. Viral RNA is not infectious.
Scientists do tell us that research results suggest that coronavirus is considered to have poor survivability on surfaces. This is good news for food safety. It indicates there is a very low risk of spread from surfaces, especially food packages that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at room temperature, refrigerated, or frozen.
What is our best response? According the CDC, physical distancing remains the most important way in which we can stop the spread of the COVID-19. The second most important step is to frequently wash our hands, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. In the unlikely event that you do come in contact with the infectious coronavirus particles from product surfaces, washing your hands will destroy the virus before you can transfer the particles to your mouth or nose. Another practical every-day food safety response is to keep home surfaces clean, including kitchen and bathrooms.
Is it safe to wipe down food packages? There is no evidence that food packages should be wiped down when you bring them home from the grocery store. If you do want to add this step, make sure you do it safely. Refrigerated and frozen items should go straight into the refrigerator or freezer when you reach home for safety-sake. If you wish, you can use an antibacterial wipe on dry surfaces, such as boxes or cans, wipe briefly and then allow packages to air-dry before storing these items in the cupboard.
The FDA provides the following 10 tips for grocery shopping:
- Prepare a shopping list in advance. Buy just one to two weeks’ worth of groceries at a time. Buying more than you need can create unnecessary demand and temporary shortages.
- Wear a face covering or mask while you are in the store. Some stores and localities may require it. Check your state, county or city guidelines for any other requirements.
- Carry your own wipes, or use one provided by the store to wipe down the handles of the shopping cart or basket. If you use reusable shopping bags, ensure they are cleaned or washed before each use.
- Practice social distancing while shopping – keeping at least six feet between you, other shoppers, and store employees. Keep your hands away from your face.
- Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds when you return home and again after you put away your groceries.
- Again, there is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, if you wish, you can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air dry, as an extra precaution.
- Before eating, rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Scrub firm produce with a clean produce brush. For canned goods, remember to clean lids before opening.
- When unpacking groceries, refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables— like berries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms—within two hours of purchasing.
- Regularly clean and sanitize kitchen counters using a commercially available disinfectant product or a DIY sanitizing solution with one tablespoon unscented liquid chlorine bleach to one gallon of water or one teaspoon of bleach per quart of water. Be sure not to use this solution or other disinfecting products directly on food surfaces.
- Always keep in mind the basic four food safety steps — clean, separate, cook, and chill.