Coronavirus and food: The consumer’s guide to the COVID-19 pandemic

Saturday, March 28, 2020 - 3:16pm

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On Tuesday, March 24, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released a stay-at-home executive order for all individuals in Michigan. Exceptions include those who require groceries and living essentials, as well as workers who are essential to sustain and protect life or those required to maintain basic business operations. Among those businesses still running are grocery stores and restaurants. However, you may be confused about the general guidelines that should be followed in terms of public and food safety in times of a pandemic. 

Is it actually safe for restaurants to continue to prepare food? Should you support local restaurant businesses, or would that put restaurant employees and delivery drivers at risk? What is the best way to go grocery shopping during the pandemic? What should be the procedure for cleanliness and hygiene?  

To answer those questions, here are your guidelines for the coronavirus and food safety throughout the pandemic, based on my research.

 

What should I know about the coronavirus?

The coronavirus causing the current COVID-19 pandemic is called SARS-CoV-2. It bears a close resemblance to its cousins SARS-CoV-1 (the coronavirus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak) and MERS-CoV (the one that caused the 2012 MERS outbreak). Though SARS-CoV-2 resembles previous existing coronaviruses, it is a novel virus — information about the virus is constantly developing as many researchers are learning more about it.

Here’s something that we do know: the coronavirus is NOT the flu. While both the coronavirus and the flu are respiratory diseases, the coronavirus is in a completely different family of viruses than the flu. COVID-19 possesses different symptoms (assuming a person is not asymptomatic) while being capable of spreading and killing more quickly and efficiently than the flu.

 

How does the coronavirus spread?

As a respiratory virus, the coronavirus spreads primarily through your respiratory system. The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention states that the main form of transmission of the coronavirus is through inhalation of respiratory droplets that are produced whenever an infected person coughs or sneezes. The transmission can be exacerbated through close contact (less than six feet distance) among individuals. 

While the most contagious people are thought to be those who are sickest, it’s important to note that the spread of the coronavirus is also possible from those who have not yet shown COVID-19 symptoms.

Currently, there is little to no evidence that the coronavirus can spread through means other than aerosolization. While transmission could theoretically occur through contact with recently contaminated surfaces, sources such as the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) state that this would be extremely unlikely as coronaviruses themselves are relatively unstable within the outside environment. 

 

How long can the coronavirus survive on common surfaces?

A study published by The New England Journal of Medicine indicates that aerosolized coronavirus can survive within air for up to three hours. On cardboard surfaces, that time increases to 24 hours. On stainless steel surfaces as well as plastics, that time increases to three days. 

This means that any time an infected individual coughs or sneezes on an item (including asymptomatic employees of essential businesses), the virus is likely to remain active and viable on that item for longer than if it were to be in the air. This may include items such as cardboard delivery boxes or plastic take-out containers. Luckily, the concentration of viable viruses will decrease quickly in the beginning and slowly approach a concentration of zero. 

Sources such as the BfR state that chances of transmission via contaminated objects still remain low because of the virus’s innate instability towards outside elements — due to the logarithmic decay of viable viruses. However, practices such as washing your hands after handling outside mail and packages as well as transferring food contents from grocery stores and restaurants, when applicable, can help further reduce the innate viral load that you may pick up from outside items. 

 

Can you contract COVID-19 from contaminated food?

Multiple sources such as the European Food Safety Authority and the U.S. Department of Agriculture find no current evidence to suggest that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food packaging or the food itself. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines a food-borne outbreak as an event that occurs when individuals get the same disease through the ingestion of the same contaminated food. 

A 2018 study indicates that the transmission route of respiratory diseases closely resembles the current transmission trajectory and patterns of the novel coronavirus. Government action from Singapore and South Korea that has tracked known infected individuals has noted that many of these individuals that have contracted the coronavirus are clustered together — which corroborates the 2018 study.

 

What are my risks of contracting COVID-19 from cooking at home, delivery or takeout?

Your likelihood of contracting COVID-19 is tied to your proximity to and frequency of interactions with others. In other words, you are more likely to come into contact with multiple individuals when you decide to order takeout as opposed to ordering delivery of groceries or cooking at home.

Restaurants and other food providers are under strict federal and state regulations in terms of proper hygiene within a professional setting. Restaurants who do not follow these regulations face severe consequences ranging from public posted notices to complete shutdowns. 

Within Ann Arbor, restaurant signs alerting residents of their takeout or delivery only policies also tend to state that they are committed to adding extra precautions such as wearing gloves and utilizing hand sanitizers on top of keeping and regulating the high hygiene standards as required for most foodservice industries.

There are risks associated with groceries and cooking at home. Restaurants and restaurant workers tend to follow a higher safety standard than that of the average supermarket and grocery store worker. Following certain guidelines can help reduce the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus — treat all items taken from outside your home (such as packages and groceries) as potentially contaminated. Wash your hands after bringing in outside items as well as before, during and after cooking, sanitize all containers/products and transfer products to clean containers. 

Jeffrey VanWingen, a doctor at Grand Rapids’s Family Medicine Specialists, offers a detailed video guide on how to best sterilize your groceries in the midst of the pandemic.

 

Should I be worried about ordering from Chinese/East Asian restaurants or utilizing Chinese imported foods and goods?

There are currently no confirmed cases in which food is a vector for coronavirus transmission. This also extends to food from Chinese/East Asian restaurants or grocers. 

The primary mode of transmission of the coronavirus is through person-to-person contact. As the concentration of viruses on any product constantly decreases, your chances of contracting the coronavirus from someone in another country are far lower than receiving it from the person unloading the shipment packages or the person stocking the items in a store.

It is true that COVID-19 originates from the Wuhan province in China. However, following the advice of local and state authorities will help reduce transmission via person-to-person. Fearmongering about Chinese and other East Asian people, foods and goods will not. 

 

What are the safest ways to grocery shopping?

Michigan supermarkets and grocery stores currently report high demands of basic necessities and food items along with an overall apathy towards guidelines from the public, with people working and shopping while sick, as well as neglecting the six feet distance rule. Many of these shoppers stocking up their pantries have been cramming their local supermarkets for their panic-buying dashes. The Meijer and Kroger locations near me consequently have been having trouble stocking basic items such as cooking oil or fresh produce/meat.

However, I found in my trips to local Chinese, Korean, South Asian and Latin markets that these small, local grocery stores have been nearly fully stocked with the same or similar produce and goods you may find at a supermarket. Supporting these local businesses can help you avoid being in close proximity with other shoppers (there aren’t nearly as many shoppers) while also providing these small business owners the revenue that they desperately need. 

But here are a few ways to keep yourself safe should you need to frequent a supermarket.

·   Avoid crowds and other shoppers if at all possible: Going at an off-peak hour such as when grocery stores open or when they are about to close means you’ll be less likely to find other shoppers near your vicinity. These are also the times when the staff members will stock up the market as well as have recently disinfected the store, for an added incentive. Should an off-peak hour not work for your schedule, remember to maintain your distance of six feet from other customers while you shop.

·   Don’t hoard: This isn’t the prelude to “The Walking Dead,” and the coronavirus pandemic is still progressing. Stock up for a few weeks of supplies and be mindful of others who may need the supplies you are considering to hoard as well. 

·   Use the self-checkout lane: It is better to give less exposure to yourself from others, as well as giving less exposure to the grocery store staff. However, do keep in mind that utilizing many of the touchscreen capabilities of self-checkout cashiers does create points of contact with a surface that may have had previous exposure to the coronavirus and wash your hands regularly. If you would like to have an in-person cashier, consider bagging your own groceries to reduce the contact your groceries will have with others.

·   Minimize points of contact through payment: As a rule of thumb: a contactless payment method through your phone is superior to a debit/credit card.

·   Stock up on prescriptions whenever possible: If you can reduce the number of trips you can take to your local pharmacist or doctor, you will also reduce your chances of contracting the coronavirus from the outside world. Talk to your primary care physician or psychiatrist to see if they are able to supply you with at least several weeks of medicine.

·   Wash and/or sanitize your hands as frequently as possible: This means washing your hands when you get back home, as well as utilizing hand sanitizer whenever you leave the grocery store, before opening your car door and before opening your front door.

Soap, hand sanitizers and cleaning products: What should I know?

The coronavirus, as its name suggests, is a virus. Viruses are inherently unstable, and a simple soap is all it takes to break apart the surface of the virus and render it harmless. The same mechanism that soap utilizes to strip grease and oil from your dishes is the same mechanism it utilizes to neutralize the coronavirus. Fancy soaps or antibacterial soaps use the same mechanism, but are more expensive.

The coronavirus is also rendered harmless through exposure to concentrated amounts of ethanol (drinking alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol). However, the CDC recommends that hand sanitizers (which use either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol) have a concentration of at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropyl alcohol in order to be effective. There is a caveat to hand sanitizers: They don’t remove the oils on your hands that allow viruses to stick to your skin and may also be diluted if your palms are sweaty. Also be wary of certain sanitizing products and wipes that may fall short of that standard. 

Your fallback should always be to utilize soap and water to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizers do have their niche uses, but should not be treated as your main source of sanitization.

 

Do I need a mask whenever I am out grocery shopping or getting takeout?

It’s no news that face masks (both surgical masks and N95 respirators) are stigmatized and shunned in Western countries such as the United States but embraced wholeheartedly in East Asian countries. But why is that?

A study submitted to The Lancet Respiratory Medicine regarding the efficacy of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) finds that in East Asia — specifically, China, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore — healthy individuals utilizing masks can reap the benefits of wearing such PPE if they are at moderate to heavy risk of becoming infected by the coronavirus. In places like hospitals, occupied by high concentrations of people in them, the need for PPE drastically increases. 

Does this mean you shouldn’t wear masks and other PPE if you are not situated around dense populations infected by the coronavirus? Not necessarily. It’s important to note that individuals within East and Southeast Asian societies utilize masks as a common, preventative hygienic practice whereas Western societies utilize masks only as a resort for those who are severely sick. Differences in cultural hygienic practices contribute to fear, paranoia and stigmatization, thus contributing to blatant racist attacks against Asians and Asian Americans within the U.S.

The reason for Western governments and health agencies to advise against civilians wearing PPE is simple: The supply for face masks for health professionals is far smaller than the demand of civilian and professional needs for face masks. As a result, governments have been attempting to prioritize masks for health professionals rather than citizens.

So the bottom line is: wearing PPE such as masks will be helpful to both the healthy and sick, though you may be stigmatized by many in public in America. But do be considerate of the health and medical professionals fighting the coronavirus pandemic on the frontlines in hospitals — they need those masks far more than civilians.

 

What can I do?

In light of the pandemic, remember to take care of yourself. Washing and disinfecting your hands and personal space, practicing social distancing and avoiding touching your face are important measures. Reducing physical, emotional and mental stresses will help boost your own immune system. Studies show that continued stresses throughout your life will reduce the efficacy of your immune system, which in turn reduces your body’s ability to fight off the coronavirus.

Lastly, if you are someone who is financially stable during this pandemic, consider supporting local businesses, grocery markets and food pantries. Many food pantries around the Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County area are becoming poignantly essential as many Americans lose their jobs and incomes in light of the pandemic. A simple donation to these food pantries or a purchase of foods/goods from restaurants providing free essential services to those afflicted by the coronavirus can go a long way.