UF IFAS Professor answers Reddit AMA questions on food safety during COVID-19 pandemic
Keith Schneider, a professor and food safety expert at UF/IFAS hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything addressing concerns on properly caring for fresh food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness, Schneider answered questions that further confirmed that fact and debunked any myths related to safe consumption.
Read up on some of the answers Keith had for questions about food safety:
Q: Hi Keith! I was wondering, how’s the safest way to wash fresh produce before consumption? Thanks for your time.
A: The safest way to wash produce it with running water. DON’T use soap or other household cleaners (which you may have seen in YouTube videos). You can use a vinegar solution (1 part vinegar to 3 parts water), though for removing pathogens, you really won’t get much more ‘kill.’ Water can remove 90-99% of surface contamination. Your sink is probably dirtier than your produce. You need to clear it first, then remove the residual chemicals with fresh water before you start. I’d stick with rinsing under running water.
Q: Is bagged produce, such as salad mix, any more sanitary than produce that is in the open and likely touched and/or breathed on?
A: First off, no evidence of foodborne transmission of COVID-19. Bagged mixes are washed, sometimes several times before leaving the packinghouse. I would consider these items a very low risk of infection . For foodborne illnesses like Salmonella bagged is probably safer since it’s in a bag.
Q: What has been learned about food safety since the pandemic?
A: It’s not foodborne. So nothing really learned. What we have learned is that the food industry needs to be more prepared to operate under quarantine environments. Worker safety is what is vulnerable now. This is being exposed now with what we’re seeing in the meat industry. The food is safe, but the workers are at risk being around other workers. This is a lesson we’re dealing with, not only in the food industry, but shipping as well.
Q: Given COVID closing down meat processing plants, should the US government encourage less monopolization of the sector to improve safety?
A: Lots of smaller producers will prevent large scale shut downs like we’re seeing this week, but lots of small producers aren’t as profitable, thus more prone to going out of business. We’ve lost a lot of medium to small packers of produce as regulations to make food safety have been enacted, thus the large companies are more successful. This is a simple answer to something an economist could answer more thoroughly.
Q: The US food supply is highly industrialized, and while it’s really efficient, we’re really experiencing some of its flaws right now. Low wage workers are left vulnerable, farms are losing contracts and destroying crops. Do you foresee any changes to the food supply as a result of the pandemic? Could there be a shift to locally sourcing more products? Could we see changes in the meat, dairy, or egg industries?
A: If you want more local food, you need more local farmers. This is a trend that has been in reverse since the country was founded. The industry is influenced by how people spend their money, thus more expensive local grown food typically loses out to cheaper commercially grown equivalent products. Especially with the extremely low wages you mentioned. It would have to take a shift in how Americans shop and spend their money. I’d like to say yes it can happen, but history tells another story. The big take away is how we protect our workers and being prepared to deal with a pandemic in the future.
Q: Canned meat and vegetables after expiry date..how safe is it to consume? Any tips to stock up food during this pandemic?
A: Yes they’re safe up to a point. If they’re out of date for several years (and my friends have sent picture of old food they found), then probably no. If you’re going to cook something and you don’t notice an off odor, a couple of weeks or a month should be fine. NEVER eat anything from a can that is bloated, regardless of dating. The important question is how out of date is out of date. The mantra is ‘when in doubt, throw it out’. Dry goods like pasta can last for years, canned foods for up to four years, unsalted up to two years. No need to hoard food.
Q: Should I wipe down my groceries once I bring them home?
A: There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID -19, is transferred by touching food or food packaging. If you do want to make sure your food or the packaging is safe, make sure you wash your hands after handling. If you want to segregate your groceries for three 3 day (not perishable foods) don’t do if in your car or garage, do it in a low traffic area in your home. If you still want to sanitize your packages, use only EPA registered chemicals, and follow the label instructions carefully. Remember, no data on most of the sanitizers you see on YouTube and their efficacy on cardboard boxes. Personally I don’t wipe down the my packages, I do wash my hands before and after shopping.
Q: What is your take on wet markets? Do they pose real threats to society?
A: They appear to present a risk. The current pandemic seems to have had an intermediate host, perhaps the pangolin. Bringing all the animals and all the people in close proximity seems to have contributed to this outbreak. But with the last big SARS outbreak back in 2003, with minor appearance of bird and swine flus since, does that justify doing away with the practice? That’s a tough call; just warrant more regulation on their operation. This is an area the warrants further examination. I’m sure the public health scientists will be looking into what can be done to prevent something like this from happening again.
Keith Schneider, professor in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.