Ordering takeout or delivery during a pandemic, you can’t help but wonder just how safe food that hasn’t been prepared in your own home might be – especially when delivered by a stranger.
There are no reported cases of COVID-19 being spread through food, and we know that the chance of transmission through food is very low. That’s reassuring, but it’s still easy to feel anxious about an interaction that was mundane in pre-pandemic times. We spoke to health and food experts for best practices when handling takeout during a pandemic.
Can COVID-19 spread through food?
The short answer is no. Food that has been cooked is very likely to be safe to eat. When a meal is moved from the kitchen straight into a takeout container, those chances become even lower.
Here’s the scientific answer:
“This virus is very different than the types of viruses commonly being spread through food,” explains Jennifer Ronholm, assistant professor of agricultural and environmental science at McGill University. “COVID-19 is an enveloped virus, meaning it is surrounded by a phospholipid, protein and glycoprotein membrane. These membranes are critical to the virus – it simply cannot infect you if its membrane isn’t mostly intact.
“However, these viral membranes are very sensitive to desiccation, heat, enzymes, pH and detergents,” she adds. “Which means enveloped viruses succumb to the elements relatively quickly when compared to non-enveloped viruses, like norovirus, which are known to spread easily using food as a vector.”
How to safely handle delivery and takeout
When it comes to the delivery process itself, the individual most at risk is the delivery person, who interacts with both the restaurant and the customer. COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets, i.e. if someone coughs, sneezes or breathes while handling food – though the risk of it spreading via packaging is low.
As such, you should opt for contactless payment when possible, whether paying electronically or leaving cash outside your door in an envelope; asking for contactless delivery; remaining physically distanced from the delivery person; and washing your hands after handling the delivery.
A useful practice is to assume your delivery person is infected and treat the surface of your package as though it has been contaminated in order to get into a new rhythm.
After you receive the package, remove the box of food and throw away the bag. Open the box, wash your hands and dish the food onto a plate. Then throw away the box. Wash your hands again and eat. If you’re dealing with uncooked food or groceries, for example, fruits or vegetables, give them a good wash or wipe-down.
If you’re picking up takeout, maintain a two-metre distance from other patrons and do not go out if you are sick or living with someone who is.
Is reheating or refrigerating takeout safe?
Reheating leftovers is okay, as is refrigerating food.
“Coronavirus is a virus – not a bacterium – so it does not grow outside of the human body,” says William Navarre, associate professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto. “If I put 1,000 virus particles on a piece of food and come back a day later? Still 1,000 viruses. If I put 1,000 bacteria [like salmonella or listeria] on a piece of food? By the next day, I’ll have over a million bacteria. So while refrigeration of food is a great thing, it’s irrelevant for COVID-19. In fact, it may keep the virus active for longer than if it were sitting at room temperature.”
If you suspect your food is contaminated, toss it out.
Precautions for delivery people
When thousands gathered in close proximity in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park on May 23, Bloordale restaurant Seoul Shakers announced it would no longer make park deliveries due to the risk – not just to those delivering, but those in the park.
In Wuhan, China, where the outbreak wreaked havoc for months, many delivery drivers wore protective gear, including full-body suits, gloves, goggles and masks and were provided with sanitizer by their employers. They also had temperature checks twice daily.
Restaurants and delivery services are also adapting to safety measures in Canada, but to a lesser degree. DoorDash is offering its delivery drivers hand sanitizer and gloves through online delivery, while Uber Eats is “working to provide delivery people with sanitization materials.”
The risk to delivery people depends not only on the restaurant but on the customer. It’s important to evaluate how much danger you might be placing your delivery person in when you place an order. Where are you located? Are you sick or living with someone who is? Can you manage a contactless process? It’s important to weigh the risk to both parties. (And don’t forget to tip.)
How kitchens are staying safe
While restaurant kitchens should always operate in accordance with provincial occupational health and safety rules, they must now follow additional public health measures, as per the chief medical officer of health: washing hands often, sanitizing between each transaction and delivery, wearing masks and gloves where possible, sneezing or coughing into sleeves, remaining physically distanced in the kitchen when possible, adding floor markings to manage traffic flow, installing barriers between cashiers and customers or for curbside pick-up.
“Most restaurants are obligated to follow health and safety guidelines regarding preparation and storage of food and most of what they do to prevent other food issues is going to be useful to limit the spread of COVID-19,” says Navarre. “Restaurant workers should be more careful about always wearing masks in the kitchen and only using clean hands when preparing food. Better yet, utensils and tongs to touch food when possible. All restaurants should be tripling their efforts.”
Now that the weather is warmer, he says, it’s beneficial to keep restaurant back doors open while a fan blows air out, as viral particles in the air build up over time when there is poor ventilation. Gloves need to be regularly cleaned or changed. While disposables may not be the best environmental choice, they can be safer, more efficient and better for your skin.
“These should be the new rules,” says Navarre. “Let’s hope, when COVID-19 is old news, some kitchens might consider keeping some of the new rules.”