I have friends who have complained they are so tired of cooking at home but afraid to order takeout food from a restaurant due to possible SARS-CoV-2 exposure. Is their concern well-founded? Is it safe to order food prepared at a restaurant during the pandemic? The answer to this question requires consideration of three interactions: (1) the food, (2) the packaging, and (3) restaurant/delivery personnel.
According to the FDA and the WHO, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be contracted from food. Even if you eat food that has the virus on it, there is little risk of that giving you COVID-19. That is because COVID-19 is a respiratory tract disease and thus requires the virus to be in your nose or lungs. Swallowing food with the virus on it doesn’t appear to be a risk.
Three experts on this point: According to Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt Medical School: “The virus seems to be latching onto cells in the upper reaches of the nose, a place food doesn’t enter. Virus that found its way into your gastrointestinal tract would be killed by the acid in your stomach.”
Similarly, Dr. Ian Williams of the CDC says “This really is respiratory, person-to-person. At this point, there is no evidence really pointing us toward food [or] food service as ways that are driving the epidemic.”
Finally, here’s Dr. Ben Chapman, a food safety expert at North Carolina State University: “Someone coughs on my food and places a virus there. What we don’t have is a direct line to illness. It’s gross, but that’s different. There isn’t this direct line. If someone coughs on my food, do I want to eat virus-coughed-on food? Probably not, but is it a risk factor for getting sick? We don’t have any data that points to that right now.”
The packaging the food comes in is a bigger threat than the food itself. That’s because the virus can live for up to a day on cardboard and similar packaging. So, if an infected person coughed or breathed on the food packaging it would be a problem if you got the virus on your fingers from the packaging and touched your face and it found its way into your respiratory tract.
There is an easy solution to this though. According to experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, this risk is mitigated by simply transferring “the meal from its packaging onto a plate, discard the packaging, and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water.” Also, clean the countertop or surface where the food packaging was sitting.
Restaurant Personnel Interaction
The biggest risk of infection in the takeout process is interaction with restaurant or delivery personnel because the data shows that the virus is primarily spread person-to-person.
The solution here is to take steps to ensure that food delivery is without personal interaction. According to Dr. Chapman of NC State: “I think that having touchless, interaction-less delivery really, really helps because the big issue is interacting with people. If I can order a pizza and someone drops it off on my doorstep, and then sends me a text and says it’s here and we don’t have to talk to each other, that’s great. If takeout or delivery were to become problematic, it would be if we’re not practicing that interactionless process.”
Food Delivery/Takeout Best Practices
Here’s a great list of best practices for ordering restaurant food from Dr. Olga Padilla-Zakour of Cornell University:
- Take a few minutes to create a safe food environment when the food arrives by cleaning any surfaces it will touch.
- Pay (and tip) in advance to minimize person-to-person interaction with the driver or restaurant takeout clerk.
- Let the driver leave the food at the doorstep. Wait until the driver is at least 6 feet away before picking up the food.
- Remove the food from the takeout bags or containers, and dispose of or recycle them appropriately.
- After disposing of packaging, wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water.
- Wipe counters and other surfaces where you unpacked the food.
So – on Cinco de Mayo, feel free to order takeout from your favorite Mexican restaurant so long as you take the above common sense steps to protect yourself.