Stories in the news have prompted consumers to ask questions about the survival of the coronavirus on food packaging surfaces. Laboratory studies have shown that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for up to several days and China recently banned food imports from several counties after finding viral RNA on food packaging.
Is this cause for concern? Even as we continue to learn more about the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the primarily spread is from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. While it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching the inside of the mouth or nose, or possibly their eyes, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads and there is no current evidence that transfer transmission does occur. The presence of viral RNA on a food packaging surface is not the same as finding infectious virus particles on the surface; the viral RNA is not infectious unless it is contained within the original envelope.
Scientists do tell us that research results suggest that the coronavirus is considered to have poor survivability on surfaces. This is good news for food safety as it indicates there is very low risk of spread from surfaces, especially food packages that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.
What is our best response? According to the CDC physical distancing remains the most important way in which we can help stop the spread of COVID-19. The second most important step is to frequently wash our hands, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds! In the unlikely event that you do come in contact with viable coronavirus particles on a surface, washing your hands will destroy the virus before you can transfer particles into your mouth or nose. Another practical every-day food safety response is to keep surfaces clean, including kitchens and bathrooms.
Is it safe to wipe down food packages? There is no evidence that food packages should be wiped down when you bring them home from the grocery store. But if you do want to add this step, make sure you do it safely. Foods that should be kept cold, for example refrigerated items like milk or eggs, or frozen entrees, these items should go straight into the refrigerator or freezer when you reach home for safety-sake. If you wish, you can use an antibacterial wipe on dry surfaces such as boxes or cans, wiping briefly and then allow packages to air-dry before storing these items in the cupboard.
To help protect yourself, grocery store workers, and other shoppers, it is important to keep a few things in mind:
- Prepare a shopping list in advance. Buy just 1 to 2 weeks-worth of groceries at a time. Buying more than you need can create unnecessary demand and temporary shortages.
- Wear a face covering or mask while you are in the store. Some stores and localities may require it. Check your state, county or city guidelines for any other requirements.
- Carry your own wipes, or use one provided by the store to wipe down the handles of the shopping cart or basket. If you use reusable shopping bags, ensure they are cleaned or washed before each use.
- Practice social distancing while shopping – keeping at least 6 feet between you, other shoppers, and store employees. Keep your hands away from your face.
- Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds when you return home and again after you put away your groceries.
- Again, there is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, if you wish, you can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air dry, as an extra precaution.
As always, it is important to follow these food safety practices to help prevent foodborne illness:
- Before eating, rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Scrub firm produce with a clean produce brush. For canned goods, remember to clean lids before opening.
- When unpacking groceries, refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables—like berries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms—within 2 hours of purchasing.
- Regularly clean and sanitize kitchen counters using a commercially available disinfectant product or a DIY sanitizing solution with 1 tablespoon unscented liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water or 1 teaspoon of bleach per quart of water. Be sure not to use this solution or other disinfecting products directly on food surfaces!
- Always keep in mind the basic 4 food safety steps — Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.