Going to the supermarket to buy toilet paper or pasta during the COVID-19 pandemic can be a stressful task, not to mention the fears that the crowds pose to your food. However, a food safety expert explains why it’s highly unlikely this Coronavirus spreads through food, and shoppers should be more concerned about social distancing and money handling to manage COVID-19 risks in supermarkets.
Maidie Wood is a food safety expert at SAI Global, a provider of food safety certification and training, which has audited thousands of businesses to ensure they comply with industry regulations.
“COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, which is spread almost exclusively through person-to-person, or person-to-surface-to-person contact – as was the case with earlier coronavirus strains, including MERS and SARS viruses. On the other hand, food contamination risks are typically microbial. This means there’s no real evidence, as of yet, that food is a likely source or route of COVID-19 transmission,” Ms Wood says.
However, she says COVID-19 does present some cross-contamination concerns.
“Since it is a respiratory virus contracted by inhalation or a similar mechanism, such as breathing in infected droplets from another person’s cough, it might be possible that a person can get the COVID-19 by touching food that has had the virus on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Even so, this is not known to be the primary way the virus spreads, and if it were on food, it would be destroyed by heat from cooking.”
She stresses the difference between COVID-19, as opposed to illnesses that are foodborne, such as Norovirus or Hepatitis A, is that foodborne illnesses are a food safety risk because they are contracted by ingestion of the microbe through eating a contaminated food product.
Although any food safety risks of the virus continue to be evaluated, Ms Wood says it’s important that members of the community follow proper hygiene practices, including washing hands and surfaces regularly, to keep the risk level low.
“At all times during the COVID-19 outbreak, members of the public must continue to protect their own health and safety by practising good respiratory hygiene, such as coughing into their elbow, and personal hygiene, such as washing hands regularly and refraining from touching potentially contaminated surfaces. Observing off-peak hours and ‘social distancing’ measures when shopping is also imperative,” she says.
Ms Wood shares five tips for consumers to navigate COVID-19 risks in supermarkets and grocery stores:
1. Maintain physical distance from people in crowded places. Shoppers should follow the social distancing measures put in place by major retailers, some of which are now limiting how many people can enter their stores at the one time. When in the stores, shoppers should avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing or sneezing.
2. Wear protective gear to the store, if you have it. Since COVID-19 mostly spreads when virus-containing droplets make their way into a person’s mouth, eyes or nose, it makes sense to wear protective gear to reduce community-based transmission – especially in crowded grocery stores. If you’re not wearing (or don’t have access to) protective gear, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing in public.
3. Use credit cards or phone pay options instead of cash. Contactless pay options are better for everyone – they reduce contact with a cashier, if not using self-checkout, and avoid the need to touch cash, which isn’t especially clean. Loyalty cards can be scanned by a cashier rather than passing it to the cashier.
4. Observe special shopping hours for people likely to be more vulnerable to the virus. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions that result in a compromised immune system are in high-risk groups. Shoppers who do not fall into these groups should shop at other times to help manage COVID-19 risks in supermarkets.
5. If having your groceries delivered, ensure there is no contact with the delivery driver, nor should you sign for the delivery. Getting groceries delivered also helps reduce the number of people going into stores and touching things and helps people follow social distancing rules. If signing is a legal requirement, take measures such as wearing plastic gloves and washing and sanitising your hands after signing. Don’t stand in close proximity to, or receive the goods hand-to-hand from, the delivery person – for their safety and yours.
 Australian Institute of Food Safety and the Direct Types of Food Contamination: ‘Biological contamination’: https://www.foodsafety.com.au/blog/food-safety-and-the-different-types-of-food-contamination
 Food Safety Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), ‘Novel Coronavirus and Food Safety,’ (March 2020): https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/safety/Pages/NOVEL-CORONAVIRUS-AND-FOOD-SAFETY.aspx
For more stories like this: