Everything You Wanted to Know About SARS-CoV-2* Food Safety–But Didn't Know Who to Ask

Yesterday I talked about the “Food of Love,” which was Shakespeare’s metaphor for music. Today, let’s talk about Food itself.

Food is another thing that sustains us, through good times and bad. If we want to stay healthy, eating healthy food is important. However, these days, even acquiring food is not without complications.

If you are following social distancing, what is better? Going grocery shopping, where you are likely to be in contact with lots of people? Shopping at local farmers markets, which have limited goods at this time but are usually open air? Their goods have been subjected to less human handling, since they come straight from the farmer to the consumer, but can we trust the safety of their food products? In my state, as in many others, restaurants no longer accept inside diners, but many are allowing pick-up or delivery options. But is that safe? What’s an eater to do?

Now, I like food a lot–probably too much. I like cooking, and I even like grocery shopping. My preferred shopping is at my local farmers market, where I have thoroughly researched my farmers’ production methods and know who I can trust and who I can’t. Our relationship has lasted for years, so they aren’t just vendors; they are part of my community.

Still, with so much fear around this disease, it has been hard to find what I should and what I shouldn’t be concerned about in regards to food. Until yesterday, when I got really great information from an unexpected source.

Not from a scientist. Not from a medical authority. Not from the government. Not from a newspaper or journal. Not from a university (at least directly). No, I got this information from…a chef.

As a home cook, one of my favorite online sites for recipes is Serious Eats. And my favorite contributor to the site is J. Kenji López-Alt, who bills himself as a stay-at-home dad, chef, and partner in a restaurant in the Bay Area of California. He is also the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, which was based on his articles in Serious Eats. Kenji is one of those writers who explains all the science in his recipes, like why adding 1/4 teaspoon of salt really does make a difference in a recipe, or the varied results between cooking something for 2 hours at 200 degrees or for 1 hour at 400 degrees.

Yesterday, Serious Eats published Kenji’s “Food Safety and Coronavirus: A Comprehensive Guide,” and let me tell you, it is fantastic! It is based on Kenji’s review of dozens of articles and scientific reports and the expertise he got from Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist from the North Carolina State University and cohost of Risky or Not and Food Safety Talk. This article provides recommendations on such questions as:

• What grocery stories are the safest to shop at?
• Which subjects you to a lower risk of infection–pick up or delivery?
• How high are the risks related to food prepared by others?
• What food delivery containers carry the virus for the longest time?
• What temperature does food have to be to kill the virus?
• Is Chinese food, or other imported food, risker than US food?
• What special risk are associated with food overall?

Kenji is clear that there is a lot about this particular virus that we don’t know; however, he argues that there is a lot that we are pretty sure about. So none of his recommendations are guarantees. Still, I got better, more practical advice about how to deal with these food questions in the time of coronovirus than any of the MANY other articles I’ve read on this general topic (although, to be honest, I haven’t seen many addressing food issues).

My only caveat is that he doesn’t address Farmers Market, which is my preferred source of food. I was just there this morning, picking up the meat and as much produce as is available in early Spring, for my family’s meals for the coming week. As I stated before, these producers are trusted members of my personal community, and I would go to them before anyone else. They did adapt things this week due to the disease; there was limited touching of food items, people stood in line at least 6 feet apart, online payment was recommended over cash, and hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes abounded. I felt relatively safe in the Market itself, and I definitely feel safer about the food itself than standard industrial food.

However, Kenji is on my next level of trusted sources about food. So his recommendations will be the ones I follow in the coming weeks. He has some great insiders tips, which I hope you also find helpful. The link to the article is: https://www.seriouseats.com/2020/03/food-safety-and-coronavirus-a-comprehensive-guide.html.

*SARS-CoV-2 is the official scientific name of the virus first termed coronavirus (before it was officially categorized), which remains the popular name for the virus. COVID-19 is the disease itself that people can get from that virus. I include this as much for myself as anyone, as I keep getting confused about which term refers to what.

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