The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some significant changes on our daily lives. The primary changes incorporated by individuals seeking to avoid infection involve spending a lot more time at home and keeping person-to-person interaction at a minimum (better known as “social distancing”). We at Marler Clark have been thinking about possible food safety pitfalls related to COVID-19 for some time, and hope to provide insight over the coming weeks to help people safeguard and educate themselves amid the new and unfamiliar circumstances we all find ourselves in.
In response to the calls for isolation, many individuals, myself included, have opted to stock more raw proteins than usual to freeze and cook throughout the coming weeks. While this is great option for social distancing and limiting contacts, thawing and cooking raw frozen meats carries its own set of risks, especially if one is unfamiliar with how to properly do so. Putting extra effort into preventing foodborne illness at home is good practice all the time, but is especially important at a time when the country is trying to relieve the stress on the healthcare sector.
The USDA website maintains a very helpful guide—found here—for anyone needing a refresher on how to safely prepare raw meats at home including guidelines for storage, thawing, and preparation. Safe minimum cooking temperature guidelines are also provided for each kind of meat that might be prepared. Also, while medical thermometers are currently difficult to come by, a good meat thermometer for use in cooking should be easy to locate (and should be a part of any regularly used home kitchen).
Another popular social distancing trend is to order takeout or delivery food from local restaurants to support their businesses. While this is a better option than dining in a restaurant, takeout/delivery orders still involve risks of exposure to COVID-19 that home cooking does not. That said, these risks, to the extent research shows they exist, can be effectively managed and minimized so that local favorites can continue receiving your support.
Currently, COVID-19 is not considered a “foodborne illness,” and there are presently no known cases of COVID-19 transmission through food or food packaging. However, the virus can survive on surfaces for various amounts of time. Specifically, the virus has been observed to survive on plastic for approximately 72 hours and cardboard for 24 hours. Thus, it is possible for an ill food worker to, for instance, deposit the virus onto a food preparation surface on which finished food comes into contact before delivery. It could also be deposited onto a take-away food container which is then handled by a consumer who subsequently touches their face, mouth, etc.
Restaurants are already required to have procedures in place to prevent transmission in this manner, as it is also how the transmission of many other pathogens is prevented. Relevant protections include, but are not limited to, proper handwashing procedures, disposable glove use, workplace sanitation to prevent cross contamination, and—above all—prohibiting ill employees from working while sick (or, in the specific context of COVID-19, prohibiting work while a close contact at home is sick). Additionally, while delivery bags, boxes, containers, and wrappers are capable of being a “surface host” for the virus, these transmissions have been deemed a minimal risk due to the repeated “dilution” of the virus from preparation to a consumer’s consumption.
If consumers desire an additional option to safeguard delivery and take away food, they can further re-heat their order at home. Research is ongoing, but one study found that the COVID-19’s exposure to 65C (149F) for at least 4 minutes eliminates the virus. Thus, out of an abundance of caution, a person could remove the food from its bags and packaging, reheat the food so it reaches 149F (65C) for at least 4 minutes, and then serve it with plates and utensils from their home. Also, be sure to wash hands thoroughly after disposing of the delivery bags/packaging and before handling the reheated food.
A final, and super-effective, social distancing method to continue supporting local businesses during these difficult times is to simply purchase gift cards. Doing so is a fool-proof way to stay safe while also providing much needed income to your favorite local haunt.