Keeping your food and family safe: A COVID-19 update from the experts

One year ago, we learned a whole new vocabulary: coronavirus, COVID-19, fomites, masking, and social distancing were words we had to use, and we continue to use. But we’ve learned a lot in the last year and where science usually moves slowly, food safety experts really upped their efforts to help us stay safe….on the farm, in the processing plants, in grocery stores, and at home.

I had a chance to talk to a few of those experts to help us understand what we need to do to stay in the grocery store and in our homes. But let’s be clear, the pandemic isn’t over. While many of us are getting vaccinated, we still need to exercise caution as new variants of the virus circulate.

Dr. Ben Chapman, North Carolina State University, says we’ve learned a lot about virus transmission. As it is a respiratory virus, person-to-person, face-to-face interaction is the number one way the virus is spread. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were concerned about the virus infecting people in the grocery store and restaurants through transmission on surfaces. We’ve learned that infections from touch pads, condiment bottles, grocery store carts, or menus, while theoretically possible, isn’t actually occurring based on data available. The best thing you can do is follow the CDC guidelines for masking and social distancing and continue to wash your hands/sanitize them after being in public places.” Dr. Chapman and colleagues have developed a useful resource at foodcov.net. This one-stop shop of resources is based on the best available science from the CDC, FDA and USDA and peer reviewed by food safety and virology experts across the country.

Dr. Chapman’s colleague at NC State, Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences, urges us to continue to use hand sanitizer when we can’t wash our hands. “For the simple reason that we touch our faces numerous times each day, using hand sanitizer is an excellent way to reduce virus contamination and prevent its introduction through the mouth or nose. This reduces infection. Continue to use hand sanitizer when entering or leaving any retail establishment.“ When we stop to think about it, how many of us have not had a cold or the flu this past year? While we might miss hugging our friends or shaking hands with our neighbor, the fist or elbow bump might be a good practice for the future.

Early in the pandemic, people were concerned about coronavirus in food, and some were spraying produce with a bleach solution, scrubbing with dish detergent, or wiping foods with disinfectant wipes. “We have no evidence that the virus is spread through eating or drinking,” says Dr. Chapman, “and bleach, soap, and disinfectants are not meant for consumption. They are great for cleaning hands and kitchen surfaces but are not for ingestion.” The Alliance for Food & Farming has some good resources on food safety, but the recommendations from all government organizations have been consistent in advising that we should continue to do the following: note the word “continue” because we should be doing these things all of the time!

Photo credit: Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

Wash produce under warm or cold running tap water to help remove any dirt, bacteria or residues that might be on the product. This goes for conventional and organic produce whether from the grocery store, farmer’s market, or CSA.

•            When preparing fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation. Your hands are the dirtiest thing in your kitchen. (According to one study, 65% of consumer don’t wash their hands before meal preparation…let’s change that sad statistic!)

•            Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with soap and hot water between preparing raw meat, poultry, and seafood and preparing produce that will not be cooked.

•            Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away or compost any produce that looks rotten.

•            Remove and discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, like lettuce and cabbage, and toss in the compost bin.

•            Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce. I always scrub melons, cucumbers, avocado with a produce brush under running water before I slice into them. Dirt on the outside can be transferred to the inside through the knife.

•            According to the FDA: “Many pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce items are pre-washed and ready-to-eat. If so, it will be stated on the packaging, and you can use the produce without further washing.”

Dr. Chapman adds that “There is no link between reusable bags and COVID-19. Reusable bags are

not considered a significant risk factor in the spread of COVID-19 and as such do not need to be banned from stores.”  However, reusable shopping bags should be cleaned between uses. Bacteria from raw fruits and vegetables can get into the bags so they should always be tossed in the laundry and washed with hot, soapy water between uses. (This is not new advice, but how many of us do it?) For more tips on keeping reusable bags clean, click here. As an older adult, we know that our demographic and those with chronic diseases are in the high-risk category for COVID-19.

Those in their 50s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 40s. Similarly, people in their 60s or 70s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s. The greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those aged 85 or older. As older adults get vaccinated, restrictions are lessening but it still is recommended to mask up, wash your hands, and avoid crowds. As Dr. Chapman says, “nothing we do is zero risk,” so continue to follow the advice from the CDC so we can see the end of this pandemic.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Check out her website and her book, Food & Fitness After 50. And, Click here to follow her blog.