Washington, D.C. — As the COVID-19 epidemic intensifies, accessing food has become a source of anxiety for consumers across the world. In the United States, almost all states have now restricted dine-in options at bars and restaurants, leading many to resort to home cooking more than ever before. In many areas, shoppers are encountering long lines and bare shelves at grocery stores. As the pandemic spreads, the only guarantee may be that stressful disruptions continue. “During this pandemic, access to safe, nutritious food has never been more important,” said Thomas Gremillion, CFA’s Director of Food Policy. “As protecting against COVID-19 has become part of our daily lives, it is critically important that consumers minimize the risks associated with shopping for, preparing, and eating food at home.”
The following are some tips for meeting your household’s food needs, while doing your part to flatten the curve of the pandemic and protect yourself and your loved ones.
- Keep social distancing front and center by minimizing trips to the grocery, keeping distances while shopping, and cleaning up afterwards.
Even if you live in an area where the number of confirmed cases is small, social distancing will reduce the opportunities for virus transmission protecting both your health, and your community’s. If you need to go to the store, try to consolidate your trips, use gloves if available, try to stay six feet apart from other shoppers, forego reusable bags, and wash your hands thoroughly after getting home and unpacking your food. Remember: flattening the curve is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. Whatever you can do to reduce your in-person interactions, while purchasing food or doing anything else, it can lower your risk of becoming infected, and infecting others.
- Know the food risks associated with the corona virus.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, foodborne exposure to the corona virus, “is not known to be a route of transmission.” In other words, studies have not shown that you can catch the virus from eating contaminated food. Some studies have documented evidence that the virus causes gastrointestinal symptoms, and thus may have the potential to spread through food, but food safety experts say the chances of that happening are not significant. The bigger risk is catching it from a person with whom you come into close contact, through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
- Wash your hands when you return from shopping.
According to FDA, the virus is thought to be spread mainly from person-to-person, but it may also be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. In the lab, researchers have detected “viable virus” on surfaces days after being contaminated. The virus is more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard. So washing hands after handling groceries or food packaging is important, according to Professor Ben Chapman, food safety specialist at the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University. Wiping down food packaging will not hurt, but according to Chapman, it’s probably not worth the effort given the dearth of evidence on that mode of transmission. “I would not suggest wiping down packaging,” he says.
- Consider an on-line grocery delivery service.
In many areas of the United States, services like Instacart, FreshDirect, Shipt, Peapod,and Amazon Fresh will bring groceries to your door for a small fee. Many of these services offer contact-free delivery—another method of limiting person-to-person interactions. These services are scaling up quickly but many consumers nevertheless have encountered long delays and limited selection. To help keep the pantry stocked, an economical option may be mail-ordering certain shelf-stable foods, such as rice, pasta, and beans, from bulk suppliers.
- If you have to go to the grocery store, keep in mind best social distancing practices while you shop.
Try to go when fewer shoppers are in the store. You may want to call the store ahead of time to determine if that is early morning, late at night, or some other time. Many stores offer “senior only” shopping times. Whenever you go, try to stay six feet away from other customers while you do your shopping. Wash your hands before you go to the store and immediately after you shop, and avoid touching your face. Be sure to disinfect your cart or basket using a disinfectant wipe (many stores provide them for free, but if not, bring your own), and use a wipe to open freezer doors.
- Practice the four core food safety practices.
It’s important to note that pathogens like Salmonella and E.coli O157:H7 have not gone away during the coronavirus pandemic. In recent years, foodborne illness has sent an estimated 128,000 people to the hospital, with 48 million sickened overall. Needless to say, now is a terrible time to need emergency medical treatment for a foodborne illness, or any other health problem. So follow the four core practices: CLEAN hands and food prep surfaces often. SEPARATE to prevent cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat foods. COOK raw foods to a safe temperature, using a meat thermometer to verify. And CHILL foods in the refrigerator promptly, so bacteria don’t have a chance to grow.