Fresh produce and COVID-19

Is it safe to buy and eat fresh fruits and vegetables in light of the coronavirus pandemic? Can I get COVID-19 from eating fresh fruits such as apples?

Photo: Getty Images.

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is a great choice that promotes a healthy diet, so it’s important that you don’t let fears of the coronavirus pandemic prevent you from eating these healthy foods. In fact, they provide considerable nutritional benefits that help maintain personal health and can enhance the ability to fight off infections. As such, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest that you should fill half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at each meal.

With that in mind, it’s important to know that food safety experts consider the risk of acquiring COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, through handling fresh produce extremely low. In fact, there is no evidence at this time that COVID-19 can be transmitted through consumption of contaminated foods, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“COVID-19 is not a foodborne disease,” she said. “Rather, COVID-19 transmits person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake.

“The virus can also transmit when a person touches an object or surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth or eyes before washing their hands.”

But, because fruits and vegetables can sometimes harbor harmful bacteria, it is important that you rinse all produce under running water before preparing or eating it. That includes fresh produce that was purchased from a grocery store, a farmers market, or even grown at home.

And, some fruits and vegetables that have skin need to be rinsed under running water before preparing or eating them, even if you do not plan to eat the skin.

For example, cantaloupe skin has nooks and crannies that can house dirt particles. You should give cantaloupes a good rinse and scrub them with a clean brush before you cut through them with a knife. That is because peeling or cutting unwashed produce can transfer dirt or other contaminates from the surface of the produce to the portion of the fruit or vegetable you plan to eat.

In fact, firm produce such as melons, apples, and cucumbers should be scrubbed with a clean produce brush before peeling or cutting into them. They should then be dried off with a clean paper towel or cloth to further reduce harmful bacteria that might be present on the skin, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

“However, you should never use soap, a bleach solution, or other sanitizers to wash produce,” Ilic said. “Detergents and bleach solutions are not meant to be consumed or used on food. Using them to wash your fresh produce can be dangerous and lead to other health issues.”

Here are some other recommendations from Ilic:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after food preparation.
  • Rinse produce thoroughly under running water before eating, cutting, or cooking it, whether it’s grown at home or purchased from a grocery store or farmers market, and whether it’s grown conventionally or organically.
  • Promptly refrigerate prepackaged lettuce and other produce labeled “ready to eat.” Although the washing during processing removes soil particles and does a good job minimizing the risk of foodborne pathogens, it doesn’t hurt to give it an extra rinse just before eating it.
  • Carefully handle produce with a rind, such as cantaloupe and watermelon. Scrub it with a clean produce brush under running water before being cut into it. If you laid it on a cutting board or other surface before washing it, clean and sanitize the surface before cutting into the fruit to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
  • When preparing fruits and vegetables, cut away any damaged or bruised areas because bacteria that cause illness can thrive in those places. Immediately refrigerate any fresh-cut items such as salad or fruit for best quality and food safety.
  • Vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, and leafy kale should be rinsed under cold water just before you intend to eat them. However, don’t wash berries before putting them in the fridge, because that will increase moisture and accelerate growth of spoilage bacteria and molds.

It is important to note that most fresh produce is eaten uncooked and there is no way to kill any harmful bacteria that might be present, Ilic said.

“This is where proper food safety handling comes into play,” she said. “To lessen your chance for contracting foodborne illness, it is important that you not only wash fresh produce before preparing or eating it, but you should also wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.”

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for OSU Extension.

Cleaning and disinfecting amid COVID-19

Do I need to store my food in the garage or wipe my groceries with a disinfectant when I get them home from the grocery store to keep safe from coronavirus?

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While some people choose to wipe their groceries down with a disinfectant cloth when bringing them home from the grocery store as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, that is not a step that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is a requirement. Nor does the CDC recommend that consumers must quarantine their food purchases in the garage before bringing them into the house.

This is because groceries are not frequently touched surfaces, and the risk of them containing COVID-19 is low, says Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“There have been no reports as of this time to suggest that COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has been transmitted by handling food or food packaging,” she said. “Coronavirus is not a gastrointestinal illness and cannot be contracted by ingesting contaminated foods, nor does it multiply on foods.

“The chances of contaminating your refrigerator with the virus are low. The virus needs to get to your respiratory tract to make you sick.”

COVID-19 most often transmits person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake. The virus can also transmit when a person touches an object or surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth or eyes before washing their hands.

However, since current evidence suggests that the novel coronavirus can remain viable for hours or days on a variety of surfaces, cleaning of high-touch surfaces such as door handles followed by disinfection is recommended by the CDC as a best practice to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.

“While you don’t HAVE TO clean and sanitize food packaging, if you or your loved ones are at increased risk from infection, and you feel anxious, you can wipe shelf-stable and ready-to-eat food packages following the instructions on the label of the sanitizer or wipe,” Ilic said, “and let it air dry before storing.

“However, it’s important that you don’t wash your produce using soap and water, as the soap may be toxic. Simply rinsing the produce under clean running water will suffice.”

With that in mind, Ilic suggests the following steps after getting home with your groceries:

  • Wash your hands upon arrival from the grocery store and before storing foods.
  • Do not store groceries outside the home.
  • Refrigerate perishable food promptly; don’t overload your refrigerator.
  • If you buy a large quantity of produce, think about freezing some of it to avoid waste.
  • Use or freeze raw meat and poultry before their expiration dates to stay safe and reduce waste.
  • If reusing nylon and plastic grocery bags, clean the inside and outside of the bags with soapy water, and then rinse them. You can also spray or wipe down the bags inside and out with a diluted bleach solution or a recommended disinfectant. Always allow the bags to air dry completely before storing and reusing them.
  • If using a cloth reusable grocery bag, wash the bag in warm water with normal laundry detergent and dry the bag on the warmest setting possible.

When cleaning surfaces in your home, Ilic recommends the following:

  • Always clean dirty kitchen surfaces with soap and water before you sanitize them. If you do not do this, the sanitation step is not going to be effective.
  • Use a disinfectant product on the surfaces, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Commercial disinfectants come in three forms: liquid, spray, or wipes. All have different instructions that have to be followed in order for the disinfectant to be effective.
  • Do not use concentrated bleach for disinfecting. It is very toxic.
  • Do not use any surface cleaners on your hands, in place of hand sanitizer. They might cause damage to the skin.
  • If using bleach as a disinfectant, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. You can prepare a bleach solution by mixing 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) bleach per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Make sure to use containers of bleach that have been open no longer than 30 days, as bleach can break down over time.

Lastly, here are some ways you can protect yourself in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission from packaging or delivery:

  • Practice handwashing and use hand sanitizer before and after handling packaging. It’s important to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time. Hand sanitizer is also an option if you do not have access to soap and water. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • If you use delivery for restaurant food, after you receive the food, unpack it and dispose of the packaging, and then wash your hands. Do not touch your nose, mouth, eyes, or face until after this procedure is complete.

For more information, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a websitededicated to answering questions regarding food, food safety, and COVID-19.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for OSU Extension.

Keeping food fresh longer amid coronavirus pandemic

I’m only shopping once or twice a month now, as I abide by the Ohio Stay at Home Order during the COVID-19 pandemic. How can I make sure my food lasts as long as possible so that I don’t have to keep going back to the store?

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Your question is on the minds of many people nationwide, as the majority of the country continues efforts to flatten the curve and lessen the spread of COVID-19. In Ohio, for example, on April 2, the Stay at Home Order was extended to May 1.

With that in mind, many grocery retailers are or have implemented regulations to manage social distancing measures, including making grocery aisles move in one direction and lessening the number of shoppers in the stores at the same time.

With these limitations, consumers should first shop their cupboards and develop recipes that use up foods that are the oldest but still safe eat, said Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural economics for The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“Then, turn to create a list of all the foods that you need to buy before you get to the store,” Roe said. “This allows for more efficient shopping, cuts down your shopping time, and allows you to be more strategic about ensuring you get what you need so that you don’t need to make an additional shopping trip to pick up missed items.”

With that in mind, it’s important to be aware of what the date labels on food actually mean. Having a better understanding of what the sell-by date, use-by date, or best-by date on food products means can help you avoid food waste and help ensure that the food you buy lasts as long as possible.

Understanding date labels on food products is key, especially considering most people aren’t sure what those date labels on food actually mean, said Irene Hatsu, state specialist in food security for Ohio State University Extension, CFAES’ outreach arm.

In fact, according to a study by Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, more than a third of consumers throw away food once the date on the label has passed, because they mistakenly think the date is an indicator of food safety, she said.

But for most foods, the date label is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality. With only a few exceptions, the majority of food products remain wholesome and safe to eat long past their label dates, the study authors said.

“Some of those exceptions include key perishable items that are typically consumed without first going through a cooking or kill step, such as deli meats and soft cheeses,” Roe said.

Infant formula is the only food product that must carry product dating under current federal law and should not be fed after the date on the label.

Raw meat, poultry, and fish should also be cooked or frozen by the date on the label, said Barbara Kowalcyk, a food safety expert and a CFAES assistant professor of food safety and public health.

“If it smells bad, it should be thrown out,” Kowalcyk said. “When in doubt, throw it out. I would be particularly cautious right now, because the last thing you want right now is to get a serious foodborne illness and have to go to the hospital.”

For guidance on when to keep or toss particular food items, consumers can turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper app or website at foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/foodkeeper-app.

The USDA says most food products—excluding for example, deli meats, soft cheeses, and infant formula (see the FoodKeeper resources for a full list)—should still be safe and wholesome after the date passes if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. Spoilage is indicated if the food has an odor or has mold, for example.

An additional caution Kowalcyk advises for consumers when going to the grocery store is to leave their reusable bags at home.

“Most grocery stores aren’t allowing them right now,” she said. “But if you must use them, disinfect them between trips and be prepared to bag your own groceries.

“People also don’t need to disinfect their groceries or quarantine them in the garage. Just be sure to wash your hands after handling the items and before you handle food—and don’t touch your face.”

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Brian Roe, a CFAES agricultural economics professor; Barbara Kowalcyk, a food safety expert and a CFAES assistant professor of food safety and public health; and Irene Hatsu, state specialist in food security for OSU Extension.

Takeout food and food delivery services amid COVID-19

What steps do I need to take when ordering takeout food or food from a delivery service in light of the coronavirus pandemic?

Food delivery service. Photo: Getty Images.

First, it’s important to understand that COVID-19 is not a foodborne disease. While there have been no reports as of this time to suggest that COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has been transmitted by handling food or food packaging, here are some ways that you can protect yourselves and others when ordering food through takeout, a drive-thru, or a home delivery service.

Because COVID-19 transmits person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, the best way to protect yourself and others is to keep physical distance of at least 6 feet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. Symptoms range from mild to severe respiratory illness. Advanced age or conditions such as various cancers, COPD, asthma, heart disease, and diabetes are associated with an increased severity of COVID-19 infections and fatality rates.

The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake. The virus can also transmit when a person touches an object or surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth or eyes before washing their hands.

“Takeout minimizes the number of touches by people, especially if the restaurant is practicing social distancing and good preparation practices,” said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“Delivered foods present no risks if the restaurant practices a no-touch/no-interaction policy during preparation,” she said.

In fact, getting food through takeout and/or a drive-thru is a good risk management choice, especially for high-risk and elderly groups because it helps people maintain social distancing and reduces the number of touch points, Ilic said.

“Likewise, food delivery helps people maintain social distancing and reduces the number of touch points between the preparation and serving of food,” she said.

However, Ilic said, independent delivery drivers cannot guarantee low-touch delivery and proper physical distancing during deliveries.

“You have to make sure that the provider is using the procedures that will prevent the virus transmission,” she said.

With that in mind, here are several ways consumers can protect themselves in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission from packaging or delivery:

  • Use measures to reduce the amount of package handling.
  • Make sure your provider is implementing no-touch/no-interaction options. Many delivery programs have now instituted these measures.
  • Ask the manager about the measures the restaurant staff is taking for food safety, before placing your order. Many restaurants are now volunteering this information.
  • Practice handwashing and use hand sanitizer before and after handling packaging. It’s important that you wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time. Hand sanitizer is also an option if you do not have access to soap and water.
  • If you use delivery for restaurant food, after you receive the food, unpack it and dispose of the packaging, and then wash your hands. Do not touch your nose, mouth, eyes, or face until after this procedure is complete.

“Food businesses should be following employee health policies and health department recommendations to keep people home,” Ilic said. “Also, it’s important to remember, the best thing you can do is to continue using good food safety practices before preparing or eating food, like always washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after using the restroom, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.”

For more information, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a website dedicated to answering questions regarding food, food safety, and COVID-19.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for OSU Extension.