Public health officials and academics agree that the coronavirus poses little danger from a foodborne illness perspective, right now, but some are maintaining a slight level of vagueness about the situation.

“While it is theoretically possible the virus could be transmitted via food, based on everything we know, the risk of foodborne transmission is dramatically smaller — perhaps by millions of times — than the risk by airborne droplets,” Donald W. Schaffner, extension specialist in food science and Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University, told Food Safety News. 

Schaffner has done extensive research in quantitative microbial risk assessment, predictive food microbiology, handwashing and cross-contamination. He frequently works with Ben Chapman, professor and food safety specialist with the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University.

Chapman agrees that the risk of foodborne transmission of the coronavirus — now sometimes being called COVID-19 — is low. It hasn’t been documented at all yet. But there are cross-contamination concerns.

“Since coronavirus is a respiratory virus we believe that it is contracted only by inhalation or similar mechanism (such as) sticking your finger in your nose, when your finger has a virus on it.  If it was in food it would be destroyed by proper cooking,” Chapman told Food Safety News.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the virus is generally spread person-to-person through respiratory droplets from sneezing, coughing and talking.

“Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food,” according to the CDC. “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

There is a chance of cross contamination from hard surfaces such as door handles, cooking utensils, countertops and other items, but that danger is low, according to the CDC.

“. . . because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures,” the CDC reports.

Countries with confirmed coronavirus patients as of March 3, 2020. Click to enlarge.

International health officials, who have declared the coronavirus outbreak a global threat, also say the chance of foodborne transmission is of small concern. 

The virus has similar characteristics of SARS and MERS viruses, which are not spread through food. The World Health Organization reports there is not yet any evidence to support the theory that the virus is spread through food. Some concerns about food had been voiced when initial reports of the virus started coming out of China because the first patients had visited the same food market.

Unlike some other viruses, such as norovirus and hepatitis A virus that survive in food, the coronaviruses cannot grow in food, according to international public health officials. The coronavirus needs an animal host, which includes humans, to grow.

Recommendations for the single most effective weapon against the virus are a unanimous call for increased diligence in hand washing.

“The respiratory virus risk in restaurants is really more about being in the same location as a lot of people, some of who can be depositing the virus on surfaces like tables, doors, menus and managing that with a hand washing and alcohol-based sanitizer regime is an effective step to reduce risks of both COVID-19 and influenza,” said Chapman.

“What I am doing personally is trying to be diligent about washing my hands and using hand sanitizer — sanitizer is in fact very effective against the coronavirus. I’m also trying to be alert about what I’m touching, before touching my nose or mouth. I’m not avoiding any specific foods.”

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