As the coronavirus continues to spread, restaurants across the country are shutting their doors to dine-in customers (and sometimes being forced to do so). Every place from P.F. Chang’s to Chipotle is sending out emails to patrons offering free delivery and ensuring guests that they are taking proper precautions to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus containment guidelines. Postmates and DoorDash are offering contactless drop-off options and lower delivery fees. And grocery stores are continuously restocking their shelves.
But in this moment of social distancing and other anti-transmission precautions, what types of food precautions should we be following? Is takeout safe to order? Can bringing home a bag of lettuce from the grocery store expose you to potential contamination?
Thus far, experts have said there isn’t any reason to believe the coronavirus can be spread through food. But what about the containers and bags that takeout and groceries enter our homes in?
“Nonetheless, we still need to be cautious because all of these viruses can mutate. And what we say today may be different tomorrow,” said Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert in Woodland Hills, California.
HuffPost surveyed a team of food safety experts to find out how to safely eat in the face of the coronavirus crisis. Long story short: Even if your food or containers aren’t infected with the coronavirus, eating food that hasn’t been prepared or transported properly can put you at risk of weakening your immune system. Here’s what to watch out for.
If you’re ordering takeout, stick with restaurants you know and trust
Now is not the time to take a chance on a new spot, Nelken said. When asked if he would personally order takeout at the moment, he replied, “It depends where I’m ordering from.”
Nelken said in times like these, it’s important to have a sense of familiarity with a restaurant and to feel safe about its sanitation practices. “Is this is a place you’ve gone to before and you know what you’re getting yourself into, as opposed to going into a facility that you know nothing about?” he asked. For the time being, he recommended ordering from your typical go-to places.
“It’s like going to a doctor. Would you go to any doctor if you didn’t feel well? No. You would most probably look up doctors, what they specialize in, and what their history is and what their certifications are,” he said.
Check out their history
Nelken stressed that you need to research a place before placing an order. Customers can look up a restaurant’s previous health inspection report to get an idea of how seriously it takes hygiene and safety. “If you’re in Los Angeles, for example, you can go to the LA County Health Department [website] and they have the restaurant inspection reports. Type in the name of the facility and you can look at the last inspection reports and see what kind of violations did they receive,” he said.
Nelken also suggested taking a visual inventory when you pop in to pick up your takeout. “Watch how people are working and that they’re wearing gloves and they’re taking the gloves off and sanitizing and keeping their work areas clean/organized,” he said.
Make sure your food is fresh
Jagdish Khubchandani, a health science professor at Indiana’s Ball State University who has studied the impact of viral outbreaks like SARS, said it’s important to pay extra attention to how fresh your food is.
“If I go order fries and they made them two hours ago and they have been staying at room temperature, then it’s dangerous to eat them,” he said, deeming the “danger zone” as 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
“When food is at room temperature, then you cannot trust that food,” he explained, because bacteria grows most rapidly between those temperatures.
Khubchandani said exposing yourself to bacteria can weaken your immune system, and now is not the time to do that. If you’re picking up takeout, he suggested asking when the food was made.
“At this point of time, it’s not rude to say, ‘I’m not eating these fries because it seems like they’re cold. Could you make them again for me?’ And it’s OK to go to a place where there’s enough business that they’re making new food instead of going to a place where they have sandwiches laying around forever,” he added.
He also added that room temperature food can be more prone to viral particles and that upon picking up takeout, it wouldn’t hurt to reheat it for 30 minutes.
Be conscious of the containers
“The average survival time of coronavirus now, given what we have known from SARS and MERS, is it could range anywhere from five hours to a day or two,” Khubchandani said.
Thus, if someone coughed on a plastic container or spoon, the virus could stay active for up to a couple of days. Khubchandani suggested taking precautions like wearing gloves to open takeout containers, letting boxes of fresh groceries sit for a day or so before reaching for them (but of course, always refrigerate or freeze perishables immediately), and using your own silverware as opposed to disposable plastic cutlery that may have been tossed loosely into a bag.
“Ingesting food with the coronavirus isn’t the biggest risk, as it spreads through your respiratory system (rubbing your eyes, touching your face),” said Keith Urbowicz, director of culinary operations and executive chef with Privé-Swiss Wellness. Thus, he recommended continuing to wash your hands “as often as possible and always before eating.”
Limit human contact
If possible, Nelken said, avoid coming into physical contact with a person when picking up your takeout. “Have them set a package down on the counter and then pick it up yourself,” he advised.
The same goes for delivery. “I would recommend having the delivery driver leave the food at the door, if possible, so as to keep social distancing a part of the process,” said Urbowicz. To put this into effect, select the “contactless delivery” methods that services like Postmates and DoorDash are now implementing.
Prioritize cooking at home if you can
The above precautions aside, Khubchandani said cooking in is ultimately the safest option. “Coronaviruses generally do not get transmitted by food but the challenge is: Can you trust the person who is giving you the food?” he said. “If they are infected, the coronavirus has a tendency to survive for a day or two on different types of surfaces.”
He added that while restaurants are sending out emails noting that they are taking extra precautions, that may not always be the case. “The bigger danger is how 20% of the food workers in America and 20% of the general population has foodborne illnesses every year, which tells us how poorly regulated our food industry is. So avoidance is best but, if not, then any precaution is not rude or overreaction,” he said.