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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food Safety And Coronavirus: What You Need To Know

Tony Dejak

The federal government advises people to wear masks, maybe gloves, when they go to the grocery store. The extraordinary measures make some people worry that the food they bring home could also be contaminated with the coronavirus.

The coronavirus spreads through cough and sneeze droplets, so health professionals say people should wash their hands and avoid touching their face.

Bringing home the virus

But what does that mean for food purchased at the store? One concern is that people might leave their groceries outside or in their garages for days because they're scared the food might be contaminated with the virus.

Dr. Bruno Xavier studies food science at Cornell University. He says the coronavirus can’t thrive on food products, so don’t leave them outdoors where harmful bacteria can grow.

“You're exchanging an unknown for a known risk. So we have to be concerned about that. Remember that the virus does not spread, or does not contaminate, does not infect our bodies, when we eat the virus.”

There is no evidence of infections from contaminated food. 

Xavier recommends that people throw out external food packaging if they can though “it's very unlikely that you will do much by, you know, wiping the virus on cardboard surfaces and even on plastic and even foods.”

Produce should be rinsed with water close to body temperature. He does not advise using soap; consuming dish detergent can make people sick.

Surviving with what's on the shelf


Ideally, people will avoid shopping as much as possible over the next two weeks, which means eating what’s already in the house.

People often throw away food based on the expiration date, but the federal government does not set dates for when food is safe to consume. 

Xavier says the food producer sets the label. 

“Basically you have two kinds of products. One that the shelf life determines for how long the product is safe for. In others, where the shelf life just indicates how long the product is adequate for consumption, in terms of quality.”

Language like “sell by” or “best by” could indicate quality. Phrases like “use by” could indicate food safety. 

“For example, you can eat bread that is one-year-old, if it’s moldy and all that you can eat it. That mold is not gonna make you sick. Of course you’re not going to eat it because it's moldy, but that mold is not a safety concern.”

Dry goods need to be kept in a dark, dry place. They can become dangerous if they get moist.

Eating expired dairy or meat products is also a safety concern. 

“If you eat meat that is older than the shelf life, you can get sick, especially if you don't cook it properly. But most importantly maybe, is that meat is highly contaminated. And as you prepare, you're going to be contaminating your kitchen, your utensils by cross contamination. You may contaminate your family.”

Freezing food, however, can extend shelf life. 

And finally, health professionals say anyone who might be sick should not cook for other people.


Read the latest on WSHU’s coronavirus coverage here.

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