Soap for hands, not for food

We are in lockdown, quarantine, home isolation, so hopefully risks of contracting the coronavirus are minimised. But we still need to eat. Many in the most vulnerable groups are experiencing shopping problems with supermarket registration almost impossible and home delivery slots weeks ahead. Numerous shelves remain empty so food deliveries might come minus much of what was ordered.

For those lucky enough to have succeeded in organising home deliveries, or who have volunteers to shop for them, or who have been forced out to shop themselves, the question then arises of what do you do with your shopping once it reaches your front door? How do you ensure you aren’t inviting the virus into your home and your kitchen? Do you need to worry about this? The answers aren’t easy to find, with more from the US than the UK, and much misleading or even wrong information.

According to Food Standards Scotland: “There is currently no evidence that food is a source of coronavirus (COVID-19) and it is very unlikely it can be transmitted through the consumption of food, according to EFSA (European Food Safety Authority).

With no current evidence that Covid_19 is transmitted through food, and with thorough cooking killing the virus , food packaging is the main concern. Although some say food packaging isn’t known to present a specific risk, others are more chary as the packaging is handled by others.

Prof Sally Bloomfield, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine advises either storing bought items for 72 hours before using, or spraying and wiping plastic or glass containers with bleach, carefully diluted as directed on bottle. Unwrapped fresh goods should be washed thoroughly under running water and left to dry.

A recent video with over 19 million views, made by Dr Jeffrey VanWingen MD, a Michigan family doctor in private practice, advocates washing fresh fruit and vegetables in a sink of soapy water, but this has been roundly criticised by Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, as there are toxicity issues about consuming household soaps. Drinking or eating these can lead to problems such as mild gastrointestinal irritation with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain as produce is porous so can absorb soap, .

One recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested the virus could stay on cardboard for 24 hours and plastic and stainless steel for 72 hours, although the overall concentration fell significantly by that time. “But the practice of quarantining and then sanitising food containers before putting them in the refrigerator or pantry isn’t necessary,” said Benjamin Chapman a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. Instead, he advises people to put their groceries away and then wash their hands with soap and water. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be rinsed with running cold water.

The American Food & Drug Agency website says: “Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.  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 their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. CDC notes that in general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures. It is more likely that a person will be exposed by person-to-person transmission involving close contact with someone who is ill or shedding the virus.”

The advice from all the professionals may differ slightly, and you can take your pick, but all agree on the need for frequent hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and frequent cleaning and disinfecting  of surfaces. 

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