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Don Schaffner had brought Thai food for dinner a few nights ago, just as he had done occasionally in the weeks and months leading up to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s worth knowing. Schaffner is a distinguished professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey whose expertise includes quantitative microbial risk assessment, predictive food microbiology, hand washing and cross-contamination.
“I know people are worried, but from what we currently know about the virus, it is safe to eat prepared food in restaurants as long as you take proper precautions – especially hand washing,” says Schaffner.
As the coronavirus spreads to the United States and Americans follow the stay-at-home guidelines, take-out and ready-to-eat meals are increasing. However, in these frightening times, many of us wonder if eating takeout is a good idea? (Also, shouldn’t we be cooking all of the groceries we supplied?)
Fortunately for lazy cooks, eating food prepared in restaurants seems like a safe choice. According to current guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration, “there is no evidence that foods produced in the United States can transmit COVID-19”.
The infectious disease and food safety experts we spoke to said they base their determination that take-out food is safe based on decades of research on other coronaviruses, which were first identified in humans in the 1960s.
“Although COVID-19 is new to us, coronaviruses are not and with all of the studies done on these viruses, there has never been any information involving foodborne transmission,” said William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the department of infectious diseases. at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads primarily via droplets expelled by coughing or sneezing, says William Schaffner. If you stand too close (about 6 feet) to an infected person when he coughs or sneezes, or maybe even when he talks or breathes out, viral droplets could flow to your nasal passages and mucous membranes. Or if you touch a surface with droplets on it and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, it could also lead to infection.
All of this means that transmission through food is incredibly unlikely, say the two professors Schaffner – unless you have inhaled your food. “Even in the unlikely scenario of a virus like sneezing or coughing coming into contact with, for example, a salad, which would enter the body through the throat,” said William Schaffner.
William Schaffner explains that the virus is mainly risky for us when it attaches to the surfaces of our respiratory tract, not when we accidentally eat it. “The virus seems to attach to cells in the upper part of the nose, a place where food does not enter,” he said. “The virus that found its way into your gastrointestinal tract would be killed by the acid in your stomach. “
Several infectious disease experts, NPR, have said that research has found no evidence of the spread of COVID-19 in food.
“There are no published reports of any link to food [of the novel coronavirus] Said Dr. Rachel Bender Ignacio, associate professor of allergies and infectious diseases at the University of Washington medical school. The World Health Organization said the same thing in February, while noting that food safety officials are keeping an eye on the problems.
While all the experts we spoke to agreed that restaurant food can be ordered safely during the COVID-19 epidemic, if you are immunocompromised or feeling very careful, you may want to consider order only cooked food rather than uncooked items like sandwiches. Cooking at high enough temperatures kills viruses, says Elizabeth Mills, dietitian and nutritionist at Villanova College of Nursing in Villanova, Pennsylvania.
“There are a lot of things we don’t know about the ability of the virus to survive on surfaces, including food,” she says. “But what we do know is that the coronavirus is a strand of RNA surrounded by a protein shell. The protein is denatured or loses its biological function when exposed to cooking. “
But like other experts we’ve spoken to, Mills says there is no evidence that food is a carrier of coronavirus, there is currently no reason to avoid food, including salads. . “At the same time, there is a ton of evidence that eating a varied diet that includes fruits and vegetables promotes good health, including a healthy immune system,” says Mills.
It should also be noted that food safety rules, required of any establishment that serves food, would also protect against the spread of the coronavirus, says Don Schaffner. These include wearing gloves, workers staying at home in case of illness, and frequent hand washing and disinfection of surfaces in the kitchen.
And no food establishment can operate unless there is at least one person on site who is trained in food safety, says Don Schaffner. The rules governing safe food preparation during the epidemic have long been known to food service managers, he said.
The FDA has published guidelines on food safety and COVID-19. The only significant change from the permanent guidelines before the pandemic is the FDA’s recommendation to maintain a distance of six feet between food workers where possible, to reduce the risk of transmission between them.
“Commercial kitchens are required to comply with FDA and USDA food safety rules, including the maintenance of clean, sanitized facilities and food contact surfaces,” said Olga Padilla-Zakour, director of Cornell Food Venture Center at Cornell University. These include washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap before handling food.
Although food has not been shown to be a transmission entry point for COVID-19, surfaces may be. A study by research letter published in the New England Medical Journal in March, found that the coronavirus was detectable for up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
So rather than worrying about the food itself, Padilla-Zakour recommends that you keep in mind surface disinfection and social distancing when ordering takeout. She recommends the following steps:
- Take a few minutes to create a safe food environment when food arrives by cleaning all the surfaces it touches.
- Pay (and tip) up front to minimize person-to-person interaction with the restaurant driver or takeout clerk.
- Let the driver leave the food at the door. Wait for the driver to be at least 6 feet away before picking up the food.
- Remove food from take-out bags or containers and dispose of or recycle it appropriately.
- After throwing away the package, wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water.
- Wipe counters and other surfaces where you unpacked food.
Thousands of restaurants across the country have closed or downsized, and the Restaurant Association says initial estimates indicate that 5-7 million restaurant workers may be out of work due to COVID-19, and many have already done so. If you decide to order takeout, it can help support struggling local businesses and the people they employ.
Keep in mind that if you limit your risk by having yourself meet at the restaurant door to pick up or deliver food, someone else potentially increases your risk in these transactions, says Arthur Caplan, Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at Langone Medical Center, New York University.
So help protect these workers as much as you can by picking up your food from the curb if a restaurant has that option, or waiting for the delivery person to drop off your food and then leave before opening the door, says Caplan. He even suggests making a group order with your neighbors – but each adding their own tip – which can mean less travel for a driver, but more money for the day. However, be sure to practice social distance when collecting food.