The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every facet of life as the government tries to stall the spread of the deadly virus through the community. In the food and beverage sector, supermarkets saw shortages of essentials as panicked shoppers emptied shelves, while cafes, restaurants and bars were forced to close their doors to sit-down trade.
Fortunately, there is no scientific evidence of COVID-19 transmission via food. As the Department of Health website explains, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that spreads via "close contact with an infectious person (including in the 24 hours before they had symptoms), contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, or touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs or tables) that have droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face".
The direct risk of COVID-19 infection isn’t the only food safety issue we should consider in the current moment. At a point when many of us are using social distancing as an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen, following food safety rules is of paramount importance. If there’s one place you don’t want to be in the middle of a viral pandemic, it’s the hospital. “We want to try to keep the rate of food poisoning down because our hospitals are under strain,” says Lydia Buchtmann, communications director at the Food Safety Information Council. “We know that in a normal year there are 32,000 hospitalisations and one million visits to the doctor as a result of food poisoning.”
“We want to try to keep the rate of food poisoning down because our hospitals are under strain … In a normal year there are 32,000 hospitalisations and one million visits to the doctor as a result of food poisoning.”
Good hygiene is one of the best weapons we have in the fight against both COVID-19 and food poisoning-causing microbes. We’re all familiar with the recommendation to wash hands for 20 seconds – with soap! – frequently throughout the day to reduce the spread of coronavirus. “It will be interesting to see if food poisoning rates go down this year, after 23 years of telling people to wash their hands,” says Buchtmann.
While there is no risk of infection associated with eating food, procuring it is another matter. A trip to the supermarket, once an entirely unremarkable activity, can now potentially expose us to the risk of infection. Follow the instructions of your local supermarket or grocery store, advises Buchtmann. Don’t put fresh fruit and vegetables directly into the trolley – use the plastic produce bags provided or bring your own from home. “Don’t handle produce too much,” she says. “Just pick up what you need and don’t taste test the grapes.”
Wash your hands immediately once you arrive home and again after you put away your groceries, and make sure your shopping bags stay on the floor, not on the bench. Wash fruit and veg before eating and dry them with a paper towel, advises Buchtmann. “Don’t clean them with soap or hand sanitiser,” she says, “because they contain chemicals you don’t want to be swallowing.”
Home delivery is an essential service for those of us who can’t make it to the supermarket, such as the 340,000 National Disability Insurance Scheme recipients that the major supermarkets are now offering free delivery to. It’s also a valuable way for hospitality businesses that have pivoted to takeaway to continue trading during the coronavirus lockdown. Most have adopted contactless delivery as per social distancing measures. It’s important, too, says Buchtmann, to make sure delivered food isn’t left outside for more than an hour.
“Don’t handle produce too much. Just pick up what you need and don’t taste test the grapes.”
While many restaurants are now serving takeaway food, beware of homemade meals offered for sale on social media platforms. A dish might look delicious, says Buchtmann, but most likely has been prepared in a domestic kitchen that doesn’t meet safety standards. “Don’t take that risk,” she says.
In the kitchen
Some have used the COVID-19 lockdown to expand their repertoire in the kitchen. Many others – thousands, it seems – have taken to baking bread to alleviate the cabin fever that comes with social distancing. As the weather cools in Australia, many of us are dusting off the slow cooker to churn out soups and stews. When cooking in bulk, says Buchtmann, “don’t leave food to cool to room temperature, because nasty toxins can grow in it, which gives you food poisoning. As soon as it has finished cooking, divide it into smaller containers, so it cools quicker. Label with date and refrigerate or freeze.”
Steer clear of raw egg, a major source of food poisoning. “Eggs are nutritious and easy and convenient,” says Buchtmann, “but do cook them, even if you just soft boil an egg, so the yolk is just set. That makes it perfectly safe.” Exercise extra caution when cooking high-risk foods like sausages, burgers and mince. Heat leftovers to 75˚C and make sure the fridge is 5˚C or below. Keep an eye on use-by dates and storage instructions. “If in doubt, throw it out,” she says.
Cooking food for others – whether soup for an elderly relative or cupcakes for a friend’s birthday – can be a great comfort during social isolation. Make sure you follow food safety rules to the letter, particularly if the recipient’s health is compromised in any way, and observe proper social distancing when you deliver it.
And if you are concerned that someone you know is having difficulty accessing food, contact a service – like OzHarvest or Foodbank Australia – that's doing invaluable work making sure that social isolation doesn’t result in vulnerable people in the community going hungry.
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