Is takeout safe? A UC Davis virologist shares how to stay healthy and support local restaurants
As we all adjust to life at home during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most frequent questions that many of us are likely asking ourselves and each other is: “Is it safe?” Is it safe to go outside? Is it safe to touch our mail? Is it safe for our dogs to run around in dog parks? And the issue of food safety is one of the most common concerns these days. But we also want to support our local restaurants and maintain some semblance of normalcy, like indulging in our favorite thin-crust pizza or sushi roll. When Gov. Gavin Newsom asked restaurants and bars to shutter operations on March 16 as part of a larger attempt to slow the spread of the virus, many local eateries pivoted to takeout and delivery in an effort to survive.
Now that Gov. Newsom recently warned that the stay-at-home order could stretch another 12 weeks (through mid-June), our local restaurants are bracing themselves for an even longer dining drought. And with movements like the Sac Restaurant Challenge, the local community has banded together to help the hard-hit industry stay afloat.
But with coronavirus anxiety on the rise, many of us are still asking, “Is takeout or delivery safe?” Knowing how easily COVID-19 can be transmitted (via respiratory particles that can travel 6 feet from an infected person, or even just by touching a virus-harboring surface), we called up Dr. Erin DiCaprio, a virologist who specializes in community food safety at UC Davis, to ask her about the proper health and safety techniques to use while supporting regional eateries.
What kind of research do you do at UC Davis?
In my lab, we research foodborne viruses. We’re primarily interested in understanding the mechanisms by which viruses contaminate foods. We look at how long they persist in foods and what types of interventions we can employ to minimize viral-associated foodborne illnesses.
Can you set the record straight? Can COVID-19 spread through food?
There is currently no evidence that there can be any transmission of the virus through food.
Let’s say someone who has the virus is cooking and they cough in the food and you then ingest that food. What happens to the virus that makes it nontransferable?
Good question. What we know about SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes the fast-spreading disease COVID-19] is that it’s transmitted via respiratory droplets. That means it needs to get into your respiratory tract to cause infection. In contrast, foodborne viruses are transmitted by the fecal-oral routes—you actually have to eat those particular viruses, like norovirus or hepatitis A, in order to get an infection.
Even though people are sheltering in place, everyone still needs to eat. How safe would you consider takeout food or food delivery?
When we talk about food safety, there’s never a zero-risk situation. There’s always some level of risk. Based on our current understanding of the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, there’s nothing that really points to food being an important vehicle for transmitting the virus. If someone has an active SARS-CoV-2 infection and they cough on packaging, there is the potential for someone to then touch that packaging and subsequently touch their mucous membranes. At that point, the virus can enter their respiratory tract. But I would say the risk of that is very low. If you’re getting takeout and you’re concerned about who’s handling that food, the best thing to do is wash your hands before you consume the product. Take the food out of the packaging, put it on a plate, and then wash your hands before you eat.
Speaking of which, we’ve seen studies showing that the virus can thrive on various surfaces—on plastics it can survive for a couple of days, on cardboard for 24 hours. How concerned should people be about coming into contact with food packaging that may be contaminated?
I think it’s a pretty low-risk situation. But if you’re handling cardboard or plastic packaging of any kind, you can also clean and sanitize counters or tables where the packaging was placed. Just be cognizant of all the surfaces that you touch and try to make sure that you’re washing your hands and avoiding touching your face as much as possible.
Has your personal routine for preparing or purchasing food changed since the lockdown?
I would like to think that I have very good at-home food prep and food handling. I annoy my partner a lot, making him measure temperatures [of meat that’s being cooked], and we clean and sanitize our hands after we handle raw meats. So, at home, my practices haven’t changed much. In terms of shopping, I still feel completely comfortable going to the grocery store and buying food, but I’ve tried to adjust the times that I go to minimize the number of people who are going to be in the same place at the same time.
Have you and your partner been doing more cooking or takeout?
We’ve been doing a mix of both. We actually have a 1-year-old boy at home, so going out has been problematic for the last year anyway. If we do get food from a restaurant it’s typically takeout. That routine has not changed at all. We have struggled to find the time to cook, so we have been ordering in pizza and Indian food and haven’t had any change in our normal practice around handling and consuming that food. But we’re always good hand washers. I feel comfortable getting takeout. I don’t want to scare anyone. I don’t want anyone to be fearful. Just think a little bit more about what might have touched the packages and containers before they came into your house. And always remember to wash your hands!