MSUToday
Published: March 24, 2020

MSU faculty member talks about food safety and COVID-19

Contact(s): Kim Ward Communication and Brand Strategy office: (517) 432-0117 cell: (734) 658-4250 kim.ward@cabs.msu.edu, Felicia Wu Food Science and Human Nutrition office: (517) 355-8474, ext. 133 fwu@msu.edu

Felicia Wu is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Food Safety, Toxicology and Risk Assessment in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.

The following is an interview where Wu answers questions about food safety and COVID-19. Wu currently serves as an expert adviser to the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives of the United Nations.

Is my food safe from COVID-19?

It is crucial, even within families, to make sure not to share food that someone else directly bit into or drank. Even though SARS-CoV-2 is not typically airborne (therefore, you don’t have to worry about contracting it from breathing air unless an infected person coughed near you), it is droplet-borne. That is why someone infected with this virus and coughing, sneezing or spitting close to you would increase your risk of becoming infected.

For that same reason, although it sounds a bit disgusting to discuss, people transmit their saliva onto the food they eat and the beverages they drink, which may subsequently contain SARS-CoV-2 if they are infected. Therefore, no sharing even with your own family. This doesn’t mean you can’t share packaged food with those in need — but avoid sharing food being eaten, open drinks and so on.

Is takeout safe during the coronavirus outbreak?

Yes, it is generally safe to order and eat takeout food, if you can trust the overall safety practices of the restaurant. Cooked food is usually free of pathogenic microbes; the only danger is if food workers somehow coughed or otherwise transmitted infected droplets to the food after it was cooked and before it was packaged for takeout. There is some risk to raw, uncooked foods if anywhere along the handling chain an individual who was infected with SARS-CoV-2 coughed or otherwise transmitted droplets onto the food. If there are concerns regarding food delivery, customers can inform the restaurant that they would prefer to have the delivery person put the food on their porch and ring the doorbell.

Many people at a grocery reach for the same produce and test fruits and vegetables to see if they are ripe. Can COVID-19 spread this way?

This is definitely a problem and has always been a problem (we’re only becoming more concerned about it now). It is entirely plausible for a sick person to rub their nose or their mouth, or cough or sneeze into their hands, and then use those same hands to touch fruit, vegetables, etc., in the grocery stores. I would recommend washing all produce intended for raw (uncooked) consumption at home with water and applying some friction to the process.

There is a considerable amount of uncertainty with how long coronavirus can survive on different surfaces, so absolutely, it is a good idea to disinfect jars or cans of food before putting them away at home. Again, wash your hands afterward.

Felicia Wu, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz.