Many of the assumptions and extrapolations being made about the coronavirus are based on what experts have learned from similar strains, such as SARS, says Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “We’re quickly trying to respond.” He notes that a virologist on staff is working on gathering data specific to the coronavirus.
The good news is that all the food hygiene advice you’ve heard before applies here, too. If you follow that advice, “there is minimal risk,” Diez-Gonzalez says.
Here’s what to keep in mind:
Wash your hands. The federal government recommends washing your hands before, during and after preparing food, as well as before eating. The goal is to eliminate the possibility of the virus (or any other potential illness) entering your body, in this case through your mouth. It has been said a lot recently, but it bears repeating: Use soap and water, and scrub for 20 seconds.
Wash your produce. Much remains unknown about how long the virus could survive on the surface of food, and even then it may vary depending on circumstances. Again, Diez-Gonzalez emphasizes, “There is a very slim chance or almost none that the virus is going to be present in the food.” There is no evidence it is transmitted through fresh produce, he adds.
Still, no matter what type of illness you’re concerned about, you should wash your produce. Plain water is sufficient, Diez-Gonzalez says, as soap and other household cleaners are not safe to ingest. Diluted bleach solutions are effective in disinfecting surfaces, but do not use them on food. Poisoning from chlorine is dangerous, too.
Diez-Gonzalez notes that other organisms, such as E. coli, are much more resilient than the coronavirus and not as easily removed from food.
Keep your kitchen clean. Regularly clean and disinfect the surfaces of your kitchen, especially if someone has been coughing or sneezing. This is as important in the age of coronavirus as it is to other foodborne illnesses that may be caused by cross-contamination, such as in the presence of raw meat.
Cook food to the proper temperature. “The virus is very sensitive to cooking,” Diez-Gonzalez says. “Heat is going to kill it very easily.” Use a digital thermometer, and check against the government’s safe minimum cooking temperature chart. Even putting the coronavirus aside, cooking with a thermometer “would save us a good number of visits to the emergency room,” Diez-Gonzalez says.
Be responsible. According to Diez-Gonzalez, “If somebody’s sick, that person should not be preparing food.”
For a more complete list of food safety tips, visit this page from Foodsafety.gov.
Diez-Gonzalez sees a silver lining from the increased attention. He says that even if only 10 percent of people wash their hands better, it would make a tremendous difference in the nation’s health. “I hope it will stick with people after the pandemic runs its course.”
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