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COVID-19 food safety: Separating the myths from the facts What food safety practices should you adopt during the COVID-19 pandemic? A professor of food science dispels the myths



You’ve seen the photos and videos on social media. Like a sudsy, pandemic edition of bobbing for apples, people sharing what they assume to be a prudent food safety precaution. In an effort to banish all traces of coronavirus, sinks full of soapy water — everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to snacks and other packaged foods floating on the surface.

“It’s really not necessary,” says Jeffrey Farber, professor of food science at the University of Guelph. To date, there is no evidence linking COVID-19 transmission to food or food packaging, he emphasizes. Just as you would in non-pandemic times — as recommended by Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — using cold running water to wash fruit and vegetables before eating “should be more than sufficient.”

Not only is it unwarranted, explains Farber — who was previously director of the Bureau of Microbial Hazards at Health Canada, and has more than 35 years of experience in food safety — it’s also potentially dangerous for reasons unrelated to coronavirus. By putting food in the sink, cross contamination with bacterial pathogens can occur — especially if it has previously housed something like raw chicken.

“You can have potentially dangerous bacterial pathogens in the sink,” says Farber. “And people don’t generally tend to wash their sinks very well, or clean them that often.” At the best of times, kitchen sinks are among the filthiest places in the home, even your toilet may be cleaner.

Additionally, washing fruit and vegetables with dish soap can cause stomach upset. “This is definitely a no-no because we know that soap actually can cause things like vomiting and or diarrhea,” says Farber. And as long as you’re washing your hands well — with lukewarm water and soap for at least 20 seconds — before and after you handle packaged food, and every time you eat, there’s no need to give them a bath either.

With the most widespread myth out of the way, here’s what else you should know about food safety and COVID-19.

COVID-19 food safety
“If you’re getting any symptoms at all that you think could be related to COVID-19, please do not prepare food for other people,” says Jeffrey Farber, professor of food science at the University of Guelph. Getty Images

COOKING FOR OTHERS
With Easter coming up this weekend and Passover running until April 16, many people are making holiday meals for friends and family members. Both food preparation and delivery deserve due consideration when it comes to mitigating risk. Firstly, “if you’re getting any symptoms at all that you think could be related to COVID-19, please do not prepare food for other people,” says Farber. If you’re feeling well, wash your hands thoroughly prior to beginning food prep.

The containers you use to package food should be clean. If you use a dishwasher, the temperature of a hot water cycle is “more than sufficient to inactivate coronavirus,” he adds. If you wash your dishes by hand with hot water and soap, using a brush is preferable to a dish cloth. Unlike with bacterial concerns, viruses can’t multiply on the surface of a dish cloth — “they’re just basically sitting there” — but the abrasion of a brush is more effective. “The physical action of the brush going against the plate or whatever you’re washing should be (adequate) to wash off any viral particles that are present,” says Farber.

When it comes to delivering meals to friends or family members, ensure physical distance by calling ahead of time, leaving the container at the door, and calling again from afar to tell them you’ve dropped it off. Once the person has brought the food into their home, they can place it directly in the fridge, wash their hands thoroughly with soap and lukewarm water, and then wash them again prior to eating.

For people at higher risk who want to take extra precautions, Farber says they can choose to clean each individual container or package with a disinfectant wipe, “but it is definitely not recommended in general to do this.”

Food safety during COVID-19

GROCERY SHOPPING
Contactless curb-side pickup — where you place an order online, or via phone or email — is “one of the best strategies out there,” says Farber. “You go to the store, you open the trunk and they put the food in. You always maintain a distance. They close the trunk and you’re off.”

If that’s not an option, the goal is to spend as little time at the grocery store as possible. To that end, Farber recommends going to a store you know well, so you’re not wandering up and down aisles, and writing a shopping list ahead of time so you know exactly what you’re after.

Choose a store that is taking the pandemic seriously, he adds. There should be disinfecting wipes at the ready, which you should use on your hands as you enter and exit. Employees should be regularly disinfecting carts and baskets, and there should be both visible and audible real-time reminders — via the store sound system — to maintain a physical distance of at least two metres (six feet).

Refrain from physically assessing fruit and vegetables with a squeeze, as you may have done prior to the pandemic. “I know people love to touch their tomatoes,” Farber laughs, “but at these times, look at the tomatoes. If they look good, take the one you want and move on.”

When you get home with your groceries, put your bags down on the counter and wash your hands well. After you’ve put all your groceries away, you can disinfect the area of the counter where the bags were, and wash your hands again. As with people receiving food deliveries, as well as during non-pandemic times, before you eat you should always wash your hands again.

Because of retail shortages and warnings to stay home as much as possible, grocery shopping has become stressful for many. As with everywhere else during the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining physical distance, keeping your hands away from your face, and washing your hands regularly — with lukewarm water and soap for a minimum of 20 seconds, and each time you eat or handle food — is the key. Knowing you’re taking the necessary precautions, and not unnecessary ones, should help reduce food-related anxieties.