No evidence that COVID-19 spreads between humans and food
Covid-19 spreads between humans and food
Inaccurate as a whole (with reservations)
An undated page on mafourchette.com states that "it is theoretically possible for the virus to pass from an infected person to food", a statement that echoes several rumors which have been circulating on social media since the start of the COVID-19 international health emergency. This statement is inaccurate because, in fact, the virus that causes COVID-19 cannot multiply in or on food. However, we have reservations because there is a low risk of infection through contact with food packaging.
Let us clear up the confusion
The subject of the spread of COVID-19 through food is more complex than it seems. Indeed, there could be confusion among consumers between:
- the transmission of the virus from a human to food (i.e. the ability of the virus to exist and multiply by itself in food);
- the possibility that the virus was transferred to the food surface or food packaging by someone carrying COVID-19; and,
- the possibility of catching the virus by coming into contact with such a surface and then touching one’s face (eyes, nose, mouth).
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states on its website that the virus that causes COVID-19 cannot multiply in or on food unlike bacteria which, under the right conditions, can exist and multiply in food. The reason? Viruses like SARS-Cov-2 only multiply through living hosts - and the food we buy at the grocery store is no longer "alive".
However, a person who has the ilness (employee or consumer, symptomatic or asymptomatic) could, in theory, transfer the virus to the surface of a food or package. According to WHO, COVID-19 disease "is transmitted primarily from person to person through respiratory droplets expelled through the nose or mouth when a sick person coughs, sneezes or talks. These droplets may be found on objects or surfaces around the sick person (e.g., tables, doorknobs, and ramps)".
In addition, it is unlikely but theoretically possible that someone could get COVID-19 through contact with food surfaces or food packaging. Studies have shown that the virus that causes COVID-19 could survive up to 72 hours on plastic surfaces, 24 hours on cardboard, and less than 4 hours on copper. These studies were carried out in laboratories and according to FAO, "In general, because of the short life of the virus on surfaces, there is a very low risk of spread through food products or packaging". This is also the conclusion of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) on its website. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says there is no evidence to suggest that food is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus. And the World Health Organization (WHO) confirms in the question-and-answer section of its site that there are currently no reports of cases of COVID-19 that have been transmitted through food or food packaging.
The statement published on the mafourchette.com page that "it is theoretically possible that the virus could pass from an infected person to food" is therefore qualified as incorrect as a whole with reservations: viruses cannot replicate/multiply in food but there is a small risk that the virus could spread for some time through the surface and packaging of contaminated food.
Should we wash fruits and vegetables to avoid COVID-19?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, and as should be done normally, it is important to wash fruits and vegetables with soap and water, as recommended by WHO, FAO, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the U.S. Centre for Disease Control. Why? Because it is simply a good general health practice that prevents the spread of many bacteria and diseases.
Do we also need to wash the surface of other foods, such as canned goods, rice wrappers and cereal boxes?
Although no cases of COVID-19 have been reported that associate transmission of the disease from a food or packaging surface to a human, and the likelihood of this occurring is very low, we should all follow the health recommendations provided by relevant authorities.
FAO recommends always washing hands after unpacking food. As an added precaution, surfaces can also be washed and disinfected. We should also avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth when handling food and food packaging, and wash our reusable bags.
To learn more about hygienic practices during food processing and preparation, you can consult WHO’s Five Keys to Safer Food.
To avoid any risk of COVID-19 infection related to food handling, no matter how small, it is necessary to:
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or with a hydroalcoholic solution.
- Avoid touching your face (mouth, nose, eyes).
- Wash fruits and vegetables with soap and water and rinse thoroughly when you return from the grocery store or market.
- Wash and disinfect packaging and surfaces on which potentially contaminated packaging has been deposited from the market or grocery store
- Adopt good food preparation practices
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
World Health Organization
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Covid-19 spreads between humans and food
June 01, 2020
Learn more about our fact-checking methodology HERE.