Food Safety and COVID-19

September 24, 2021

With the fast-rising cases of COVID-19 in Fiji, most consumers are doing all they can to protect themselves and their loved ones from this deadly virus. Whether it be wearing face masks, regularly washing and sanitizing their hands or ensuring that they remain in their bubbles – a concerted effort is being seen among most Fijian consumers. Understandably, many people are concerned about how to keep themselves and their families safe and are well informed about how the virus is transmitted. Yet, misinformation about how COVID-19 is spread through food mediums has led to confusion and concern among consumers internationally. This has even compelled the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to issue consumer advisory on food safety in the current environment in their effort to help address some of the misinformation and confusion. In this week’s edition, let’s look at some of the advisory and tips which are being recommended to consumers.

Food Safety and COVID-19 – Myth Busters

1. Can COVID-19 transmit through food?

According to the WHO and FAO, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by food. The virus is transmitted primarily by people who are infected coughing and sneezing droplets which are then picked up by another person. Though the droplets can land on objects and surfaces, according to WHO, it is not known if this amount of contamination is enough to make a person sick from food.

2. Can COVID-19 grow on food?

While bacteria under the right conditions can grow on food, a virus such as the one that causes COVID-19 requires a living host in order to survive and multiply.

3. Is food delivery safe?

Yes, according to WHO, if the provider follows good personal and food hygiene practices, opting for delivery is a much safer option then visiting stores physically. After accepting food/grocery deliveries, hands should be washed with soap and water.

4. Can COVID-19 be transmitted through fruits and vegetables?

Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. Washing fruit and vegetables with potable water is sufficient: it is recommended to follow the ‘WHO 5-Keys to Safer Food’. Do not wash your produce with soap, detergent, bleach, disinfectant or any other chemicals – this can prove to be detrimental to your health.

5. Does cooking food at the correct temperature help in preventing getting sick?

Heating your food to the temperatures required to kill pathogens (70°C for 2 minutes or equivalent) will decrease the risk of getting any foodborne illness, including those caused by viruses. While there are no studies on the effect of cooking on this particular virus, other coronaviruses are destroyed at these temperatures.

Food Safety Tips While Shopping, Preparing, Cooking and Storing

Let’s look at some general food safety tips which consumers should be mindful of at four different levels; shopping, preparation. cooking and storing.

1. Shopping; select your food carefully

• Inspect the food items before placing it in your shopping cart. Canned and other pre-packaged items should not be dented, bloated or punctured. These are signs that the packaging has been compromised which makes its safety questionable.

• Be careful when buying fresh produce. Check whether the fruits or vegetables are bruised, shrivelled or mouldy. As these are perishables, buy only what you can consume within a few days.

2. Preparation; wash and keep clean and separate raw food from cooked food

• Wash and keep hands clean before and after handling or consuming food.

• Use separate utensils and kitchenware for cooked and raw food. Mixing utensils may compromise the safety of your food as it can give rise to pathogens; disease causing organisms.

• Wash and soak vegetables before cooking This will ensure that any foreign material such as dirt and bacteria are washed away.

3. Cooking; cook your food well

• Ensure food is cooked thoroughly at a minimum temperature of 75°C so as to kill any bacteria present.

• Especially during barbeques, ensure there is no pink meat and juices run clear when the meat is pricked or sliced.

• Ensure that you are using clean utensils.

4. Storing; keep food at safe temperatures

• Portion out excess cooked food and refrigerate quickly. According to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand, food should not be kept in room temperature for more than 2 hours.

• Ensure that you store food at correct temperature – usually food labels specify recommended storage temperature. Ensure that different refrigerated or frozen food items do not come on tact with each other – use proper containers or packaging for refrigerating or freezing.

Food Safety Mistakes Which Consumers Must Avoid

1. Reusing the same shopping bag

According to Consumer Reports, totes made out of cloth can be a breeding ground for bacteria as juices can drip from packages of raw meat and contaminate the bag. A safer move: Do not switch back to plastic. Instead, wash your cloth bags frequently.

2. Keeping meat on top fridge shelf

If you place meat on the top shelf in your fridge, there are chances that juices from the meat may drip on food products on the bottom shelf. A safer move: Keep meat on the bottom shelf of the freezer.

3. Thawing Food

It is common for people to thaw meat at room temperature, often leaving it overnight when preparing meals such as lovo or BBQ. This should be avoided as bacteria grows rapidly between 5°C and 60°C. A safer move: Thaw food safely in the refrigerator overnight or in the microwave. For frozen poultry, ensure that it is thoroughly thawed before cooking to ensure that it cooks evenly – to avoid any injury to your health.

As a consumer, you have a key role to play in demanding and maintaining the safety of food products. Fijians with any consumer issues can seek the Council’s assistance by calling the toll-free number 155 or can lodge a complaint using the Consumer Council of Fiji mobile app.