by Aaliyah Bowden, North Carolina Health News
June 5, 2020
News reports have been filled in recent weeks with accounts of workers at meat processing plants coming down with COVID-19 at their workplaces. Farmers and food manufacturers have tested positive for the virus, and some have expressed concern over whether the virus can be transmitted by touching or eating food from these farms and processing plants.
Should consumers be worried?
The science behind food safety gives us clues on how to think about this situation.
There’s still plenty we don’t know about COVID-19. But what we do know is that the virus is transmitted from person to person, primarily through respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That makes it unlikely for the virus to appear in food.
CDC officials say there’s no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through food, even if someone handling it coughs or sneezes nearby.
Experts say that if consumers follow safety measures while preparing food such as washing produce and cooking meat to proper temperatures, there’s no need to worry.
If a respiratory droplet from COVID-19 was consumed, our digestive system would break the virus down and it would not affect us, they explained.
“The good news with this particular virus is that it is not a foodborne virus,” said Ben Chapman, a professor at N.C. State who studies food safety.
Food doesn’t travel into the respiratory system, Chapman explained.
“Most of the food that we eat, ends up getting right into our gut and ends up encountering a whole bunch of acid in our stomachs,” he said. “And this virus particularly doesn’t really remain infectious once it hits the stomach.”
In other words, if someone were to cough on our food, it’s unlikely to harm us because our bodies have the ability to break it down, something that’s not true for all pathogens, such as E. coli or norovirus. Unlike gastrointestinal foodborne viruses like Hepatitis A or norovirus which make people ill through contaminated food, food exposure is unlikely to transmit COVID-19 according to a statement this week by the U.S.Food and Drug Administration.
So how would we manage to eat without getting sick?
One answer has to do with proper food preparation.
Food Prep 101
There are four basic practices to making food safe: make sure supplies and food preparation surfaces are clean, separate raw meats from fresh produce, cook foods thoroughly, and chill food thoroughly after it’s cooked, says guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Common food handling mistakes in the kitchen are cross-contamination, not washing hands properly, cooking foods at the wrong temperatures, and not allowing specific foods enough time to cool, according to Chapman.
“Beef, poultry, fish and flour, which is a raw food, they can have pathogens associated with them because of the way we get food. In meat and poultry, animals can spill pathogens that could have been in their digestive tract around and that could get on meat.”
He added these pathogens can be minimized but all of them won’t be eliminated.
So even if COVID-19 was something that could be transmitted by food, proper preparation would eliminate the risk of getting sick. That’s because we heat up our meats to certain safe temperatures before consuming it.
The “kill step” is a term used in food safety circles to talk about killing pathogens in food through cooking it at the right temperature. It’s when that step in cooking is overlooked by folks cooking at home that they get into trouble.
The correct temperature for beef, pork, veal and lamb is 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and poultry must be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure safe consumption, according to the USDA.
These high temperatures would also kill any potential coronavirus.
Master Blend Family Farms, LLC, a hog farm located in Kenansville, NC says all of their pork items are held at -12 degrees Fahrenheit according to Ronald Simmons, the president of MBFF. After that, the product goes to cooks who bear the responsibility for proper preparation.
The USDA advises all food handlers to separate raw meats from raw vegetables and cooked foods to prevent foodborne illnesses. If meat and poultry products are not separated, juices can leak and contaminate other food.
More people are cooking at home now because restaurants are closed, said Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
“We’re asking [people to] pay special attention to washing their hands, make sure there is not room for cross-contamination in the home,” he said.
He added leftovers need to be refrigerated quickly and stored properly in the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.
Soap and water do the trick
When handling foods that might have pathogens, soap and water and other disinfectants are crucial to eradicating bacteria from one’s hands.
Normal soap removes 99 percent of germs from our hands.
Chapman said washing hands with normal soap instead of antibacterial soap when handling food is the best defense for killing off germs because washing – best done with hot water – removes soil that may contain virus particles and allows those particles to go down the drain.
“There are two things we look at in food safety,” Chapman explained. “We look at bacteria and we look at viruses and they are two different biological microorganisms.”
Unlike normal soap, antibacterial soap is used to rid bacteria from the hands and in cells. Antibacterial soaps are primarily formulated for bacterial infections and not viral infections such as coronavirus. Antibacterial soap could eliminate some virus particles but would not be as effective as normal hand soap. Normal hand soap is a better choice in food safety because the formula will weaken virus particles and kill off most of the germs from the hands.
“The antibacterial soap is in the name,” Chapman continued. “[It’s] not formulated for viruses.”
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer might not be the best in food safety situations because the solution does not kill every virus, Chapman said. He explained that when food safety specialists consider hand sanitizer in the workplace they have to decide which variables they are trying to control and what microorganisms the worker is more prone to encounter preparing food.
“If there was a norovirus outbreak, I definitely wouldn’t suggest to people in restaurants or consumers to use hand sanitizer. But with SARS-CoV2, because hand sanitizer actually works to inactivate the virus—because of the biology of the virus, then I would recommend it,” he said.
What about proper hand-washing for farmers?
It’s easy for farmers to be exposed to pathogens on the farm when growing fresh produce and livestock. Farmers are still considered employees and are required to follow the FDA food code which includes proper hand-washing practices. Workers are required to wash their hands for 20 seconds, scrubbing for at least 10 to 15 seconds during hand-washing, according to the FDA.
“Research has shown a minimum 10-15 second scrub is necessary to remove transient pathogens from the hands and when an antimicrobial soap is used, a minimum of 15 seconds is required,” wrote Chris Gunter, an N.C. State professor, in an email to NC Health News.
The CDC recommends consumers wash their hands for 20 seconds and scrub for an extra five seconds.
Gunter added a warm water temperature is “important for achieving the maximum surfactant effect of the soap.”
Eating raw foods such as salads are still safe, too, Chapman said, noting that the only way for a person to catch the coronavirus from a sick farmer is if they personally traveled to the farm and were in contact with an infected farmer.
“The biggest risk in COVID-19 has nothing to do with food or surfaces, the biggest risk is being around other people,” he said. “When it comes to food and food packaging we don’t have any evidence of people getting sick, getting the virus through those means.The risk of getting sick from food is extremely low.”
The novel coronavirus has a “poor survival” rate in outdoor environments where plants grow, according to Gunter. He said that there is not enough data collected to make a statement on COVID-19 living on plants.
Now what if a farmer coughs or sneezes on food?
“The best way for it to infect me is if I touch that produce… and then I don’t wash my hands,” explained Chapman. “As a consumer, I can do a lot of hand-washing, after I handle food to really protect myself, not just from COVID-19, but from other foodborne illness issues as well.”
Throughout the state, there are growing reports of farmworkers testing positive for the virus. For example, three people in one farm family in Lee County tested positive for the virus, said Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health, a network of community health centers.
“Then we went and tested their farmworkers, and they were just as positive as the farmers,” Toomey said. “And so we just had one farm where 19 to 20 workers were positive in Lee County.”
N.C. State reported at the regular NC Food Safety and Defense Task Force meeting on May 13 that they are working with farmers around this issue.
“We are seeing a number now of growers reporting stages of COVID among farmworkers,” Gunter confirmed at the task force meeting. “We’re dealing with that on the resource side, as well as helping growers understand how to prevent the spread (of COVID-19) and following the CDC guidelines.
As the pandemic surges on, there are no FDA workers traveling to complete in-person inspections on farms or other firms to ensure food safety standards are being met, according to FDA spokesperson Nicole Clausen who also spoke at the task force meeting. Instead, they’re focusing on document reviews, until they can get back out to facilities.
But if you still have anxiety over your fresh produce, Gunter said there are some extra precautions to take.
“We (NC State) are recommending consumers not buy damaged or bruised vegetables and only touch the fruit or vegetable that you are going to purchase,” he said in an email.
“Wash the produce you buy in water only. You can rub the firm skinned fruit with a clean brush or your clean hands under running water. Dry the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel. Don’t use soap or bleach on those fruits and veggies.”
MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: Farmworkers harvest peppers. Photo courtesy: NC Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services Facebook page