The novel coronavirus is so dangerous because it can be easily transmitted from person to person. The fact that it can survive up to a few hours in the air and as long as three days on certain surfaces only further aides transmission. But, and this is crucial, the virus has to find a way to jump from those surfaces to your eyes, nose, or mouth, after which it will nest inside your throat on its way to its favorite place, the lungs. That's where the real fun begins for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and it's up to your immune system to fight it, whether it's aided by drugs or not. As long as you stay away from other people, and wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds with plenty of soap, the virus has no chance of infecting you.
But what if those tiny droplets make it into the food that's been prepared for you by someone else? What if a delivery person has COVID-19, but they just don't know it? What if the virus somehow makes it into the food you make yourself at home? These are all valid questions that will surely drive up your blood pressure and paranoia. But the answer to all of them is that the chance of getting COVID-19 from food is incredibly small. In fact, a particular set of events has to occur in order to get the novel coronavirus from any sort of food that you're about to eat, regardless of the source.
Food expert J. Kenji López-Alt has a great Q&A section over at Serious Eats. He partnered with North Carolina State University food safety specialist Ben Chapman to explain everything about coronavirus and food. And the duo concludes that it's highly unlikely to get COVID-19 from what you eat.
The extensive report states that while there's not enough data on how long the virus can survive on food, SARS-CoV-2 is more likely to stay alive on non-porous surfaces like plastic and break down on organic surfaces including cardboard and food. A recent study has shown that the SARS strain can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, but that just means you should treat everything that comes into your house as a contaminant and give it a proper once over with disinfectant and soap. Or designate a quarantine are where you can leave packages and mail for a few days before you open it. Also, you should always wash your hands when coming back home from a grocery store run, and after handling the packages a delivery person just dropped off.
Remember those questions from before? Serious Eats has answers for all of them, so let's revisit:
What if those tiny droplets make it into the food that's been prepared for you by someone else? What if a delivery person has COVID-19, but they just don't know it?
According to multiple health and safety organizations worldwide, including the CDC, the USDA, and the European Food Safety Authority, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 has spread through food or food packaging. Previous coronavirus epidemics likewise showed no evidence of having been spread through food or packaging.
There's not enough evidence to conclusively prove that food can't transmit COVID-19, but the empirical proof that we have says that's not the case. Even if food is contaminated while it's being made or in transit, whatever amounts of virus may be in, it will end up in your stomach, not your lungs.
Let's say a food worker coughs while preparing my food, how could I not pick up the virus from eating it? This confused me as well, which is why I specifically inquired about it. According to Chapman, the risk is minimal. Even if a worker sneezes directly into a bowl of raw salad greens before packing it in a takeout container for you to take home, as gross as it is, it's unlikely to get you sick.
This 2018 overview of both experimental and observational study of respiratory viruses from the scientific journal Current Opinion in Virology (COVIRO) explains that respiratory viruses reproduce along the respiratory tract—a different pathway than the digestive tract food follows when you swallow it. And while you might say that you just inhaled that salad, more likely you ate it with a fork and swallowed it.
Eating with your hands is safe too, although you might be better off with clean silverware.
In this situation, the viral load has been diluted several times. First, when it was transferred from the board to the burger bun. Next, more viral load was shed when the bun was placed in the takeout container. It is diluted again when you pick up the burger before interacting with your face in inadvisable ways. While he didn't rule out the possibility of picking up the disease this way, Chapman described it as "a moonshot, even before you touch your face."
What if the virus somehow makes it into the food you make yourself at home?
It's actually riskier to buy your own food because that involves getting out of the house, touching all sorts of surfaces, and interacting with people. But it's not because of the food itself.
You should avoid touching your face and any surfaces you don't have to. Once you get home, wash your hands, change your clothes, and wash your hands again. Then start unpacking everything, and sanitize things in the process. Then... you guessed it... wash your hands some more.
The same goes for preparing your meals. Wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your face. Finally, go for heated meals, as cooking or reheating food will also kill any SARS-CoV-2 that makes it on your food:
Temperatures and times for coronavirus are not yet fully researched, but scientists suggest a temperature of 149°F (65°C) for at least 3 minutes is sufficient. Experts assume that the virus will respond like other pathogens and that hotter temperatures will require shorter times, but we currently do not have experimental data to prove it.
The bottom line is that even food with invisible coronavirus sprinkles on it isn't likely to infect you. But if you still have more questions you really should check out the entire Q&A over on Serious Eats.