In light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, consumers may have questions about food safety, said Yasser Sanad, Ph.D, assistant professor of food science/food safety for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.


Common questions include whether the virus can be spread through food and how individuals can safely shop for groceries.


“At this point, there is no scientific evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food or food packaging,” he said. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus has a poor survivability rate on surfaces, including food products. Refrigerated or frozen food products that are shipped over a period of days or weeks likely have very low risk of spreading COVID-19.”


Sanad said it is possible for individuals to contract COVID-19 by touching their face, mouth, nose or eyes after contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. And given the fact the virus may be able to survive in refrigerators with low humidity and temperatures below 40 degrees F, it is worth it to take extra precautions when handling potentially contaminated food products.


“To avoid any chances of transmission of the virus from contaminated food or food packaging, consumers must wash their hands as soon as they get back from the grocery store,” Sanad said. “Wipe off all product packaging with antimicrobial wipes before putting them in the pantry or refrigerator.”


For the frequent cleaning of kitchen surfaces and food products, individuals can prepare a solution of 1/3 cup of bleach and 1 gallon of water. Dampen a clean towel with the solution before wiping off products and surfaces such as counters, light switches and doorknobs.


“At home, always keep in mind the four key steps of food safety – clean, separate, cook and chill,” Sanad said. “These simple steps go a long way in preventing foodborne illness.”


At the grocery store, it is important to wear a face mask, he said. Cloth face masks can help slow the spread of the virus by preventing individuals from touching their nose and mouth and shielding themselves and others from larger respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes.


“At the store or pharmacy, always remember to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other shoppers,” Sanad said. “Wash hands regularly or use hand sanitizers, especially after touching objects such as door handles, doorknobs and shopping carts.”


While there is no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 through food or food packaging, administrators of food processing facilities should continue to follow Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) as outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


“Rather than testing your facility for the virus, the key is to keep all surfaces and packaging clean,” Sanad said. “Considering the possible shedding of the coronavirus by someone who does not show any symptoms yet, food manufacturers and grocery stores employees need to take extra precautions through more frequent cleanings of all surfaces and tools that are frequently touched.”


According to the CDC, employees at food processing facilities and grocery stores should be provided personal protective equipment (face masks and gloves) when possible. These businesses should have evaluation processes in place to make sure all the safety precautions and social distancing measures are being followed.


For details on this and other food safety topics, contact Yasser Sanad at sanady@uapb.edu.


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