The novel coronavirus pandemic has driven us inside. All across Washington state, restaurants and bars have shut their dining rooms and are limited to delivery and takeout, children are suddenly home from school through April 24, and with thousands of adults telecommuting or self-isolating, people are eating at home more than ever and wondering: How can we keep our food clean and safe?

Here’s a rundown of the latest recommendations.

Can COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, be spread by food?

COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through the air, via contact with an infected person’s body fluids (from coughing or sneezing) or from contact with surfaces on which an infected person has sneezed or coughed. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there have been no reports of the virus being transmitted via food or food packaging.

“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” the FDA said in a Feb. 27 statement.

As of March 7, the European Food Safety Authority has also confirmed the lack of food-related reports, adding that other coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS, have been shown to need a human or animal host and cannot grow in food.

Like the common cold and flu, the virus can remain viable on surfaces for an unknown amount of time, so if an infected shopper or a food worker coughs on, sneezes on or touches food or preparation tools or surfaces, the virus can spread that way.

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“What we’re talking about is ‘spit vectors,’ as I like to tell my students,” says Anne-Marie Gloster, a nutritional-sciences lecturer for the University of Washington School of Public Health.

“Understand we do have one of the safest food supply chains out there; I’m not concerned about the virus impacting the food supply,” Gloster said. “They are saying the virus isn’t living long on surfaces. It likes live hosts, not dead packaging.”

So when it comes to best practices for food prep at home, you should just follow standard food-safety protocol: wash surfaces and tools regularly, wash hands before and after touching food and keep raw and cooked prep areas separated.

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What’s safer? Raw or cooked food?

Well-cooked food gets the nod for the safest bet even though the virus is not thought to grow in food. According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, cooking for 30 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit kills SARS.

Shopping tips

Jim Rogers, Consumer Reports’ director of food-safety research and testing, recommends:

  • Consider a delivery service (especially if you’re an at-risk individual), but tip electronically and have items delivered to your door rather than doing a direct handoff.
  • Hit stores during off-peak hours.
  • Bring hand sanitizer or wipes, plus a towel, to clean and dry your hands and the cart before and after shopping.
  • Pay with plastic versus paper to minimize contact with hands or cash.

Food to add to your shopping list

While that bag of chips may be appealing, it’s not giving your immune system much to work with. A better approach, says nutritionist Emily Edison, is to “eat the rainbow.”

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A registered dietitian, Edison has worked with the Seattle Thunderbirds junior hockey team, the University of Washington athletic department, Seattle University and Pacific Lutheran University.

“I’m a huge fan of getting people thinking about doing a good variety of color, making sure they get a good amount of vitamins A and C,” Edison said. “You could also think about getting some zinc. It’s kind of an unknown vitamin but it plays a really important role in building our immune system. You find a lot of zinc in pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas) and sunflower seeds, which are great on a colorful salad. Have some carrots and peppers on your salad and sprinkle some seeds on top.”

Frozen fruits and veggies, Edison says, are a great option, since they were frozen at peak of freshness and packaged well before the outbreak, and keep longer than fresh produce. Nutritionally, unless you’ve grown it yourself, “frozen is as good as fresh,” she says, which may “alleviate some anxiety” if fresh produce is in short supply that day.

There’s no reason to live on dry goods alone, says UW nutritional-sciences lecturer Gloster, unless you want to. “We’re not thinking there is going to be marked disruptions in the food system as far as grocery delivery. Most of our food is machine-based,” she said.

Gloster recommends clearing out (and labeling) your pantry and freezer and buying the food you’ll enjoy eating. Increase your flavor options by buying fresh herbs and freezing them for later, pureed in ice cubes or mixed in herb butters, and chopping and freezing single servings of onions and peppers.

Best practices when washing fruit and vegetables

Most government agencies recommend simply washing with running water, scrubbing with a vegetable brush as needed rather than using special produce washes, which can add new deposits. A University of Maine study concluded that distilled water alone beat out three commercial ozone and chlorine washes for effective cleaning.

The best way to wash produce is just with water, say the experts. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
The best way to wash produce is just with water, say the experts. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Jason Bolton, an associate extension professor and food-safety specialist at the University of Maine, worked on the study. He prefers a water rinse for produce over any washes, including homemade “natural” ones made of lemon juice and/or vinegar. He points out, however, that you don’t want a drastic temperature difference between the produce and the water, because it could allow the produce to absorb any bacteria on the surface.

“If you had contamination on the surface, it could be sucked in,” Bolton said.

In most cases, cool water is a good choice when produce has been stored at most supermarkets’ typical temperatures of 50-ish degrees.

If a package of greens or baby carrots says “prewashed,” Bolton said, “we don’t typically recommend rewashing.”

Equally important is the sanitation of the prep area and tools, from sinks to cutting boards. Don’t forget to clean and dry your vegetable brush between uses.

You want to use only “food contact surface sanitizers” because some cleaners are not dilute enough to be safe. “With those, you can essentially spray the surface and put food on it right after,” Bolton said. For chlorine, look for concentrations of 200 parts per million, with no added scents.

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Gloster agrees, saying Clorox laundry additive, for instance, will not sanitize — she adds to check the bottle under “uses” to see if “sanitize” is included.

Edison washes her produce in cold water, chops it, washes again in a colander and then dries on a paper towel or clean cloth.

To keep moisture to a minimum, Gloster stores her greens with a dry paper towel to retain freshness in the fridge, and she washes right before using.

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Other resources

The Washington state Department of Health suggests these recommendations for food workers (and the rest of us):

  • Only handle food when healthy. People who are coughing, feverish, short of breath, vomiting or who have diarrhea or other symptoms of illness should stay out of the kitchen.
  • Wash hands to reduce risk of illness. Always wash hands thoroughly before and during food preparation.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables before cutting or eating. Rinse raw agricultural products, such as heads of lettuce, under running water prior to cutting or serving.  Bagged lettuces that are “ready to eat” do not need additional washing.

Coronavirus resources

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