[EXPERT REACTION] Can coronavirus spread through food?

Photo by Hemant Latawa on Unsplash

What we do know so far about COVID-19 is that the disease can spread through droplets that are released from the nose or mouth when someone coughs, sneezes or exhales. But what about consuming food that might be contaminated by the virus? We asked experts:

Can coronavirus spread through food?


Prof Dr Liong Min Tze, Microbiologist & Associate Professor at the School of Industrial Technology, Universiti Sains Malaysia, said:

“As per my video (Part-1: What is a Virus?), we know that viruses are not alive. Thus, it cannot be “killed”, but “deactivated” instead. Virus primarily contains its genetic materials inside its core. Imagine a football with some knitting threads inside. Once inside our body, the virus will “pump” the genetic material or “knitting threads” inside our cells and our cells will then start to make more of the virus’s “knitting threads”, like a factory. Once done, this factory will be destroyed. So, the virus does not “deliver a baby” but instead uses our body as a production factory. Thus, a virus doesn’t need to be alive.

Due to this, a virus can remain in the environment in a dormant state for a long time if the condition is favourable, or until something destroys its outer layer, exposes its inner “knitting threads” and thus the virus cannot enter our body. Thus, yes virus can spread through food or as a matter of fact, any medium unless it is deactivated. Heat, acid, UV, chemicals are some strategies to deactivate the virus. For example, cooking food for a prolonged time and at high temperatures can deactivate some viruses. We need to remember too that viruses as different, just like humans, we are all different. Some are stronger than the others. Thus, some viruses can be deactivated easier than some others. 

Also, as per my video (Finale: Cure for COVID-19?), we can see that coronaviruses are a group of viruses, not just one single virus. SARS-CoV-2 is a type of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as we are experiencing now. We also know that coronaviruses have been present around us for many years and found in various types of animals ranging from exotic ones such as bat, alpaca, peafowl and whale, to those close to us such as cat, dog, chicken, cow, pig and birds. From this list, we can see that many serve as food to humans. Thus again, yes, coronaviruses can spread through food and remain active in certain foods that are not cooked sufficiently.” 

Professor Dr Lee Yeong Yeh, Gastroenterologist at the School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, said:

“At the moment, evidence points to human-to-human transmission, largely through respiratory droplets or aerosols. Spreading through food is completely baseless.”

Michael W. Smith, Chief Medical Director at WebMD, said:

“There is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus can spread through food. The virus is spread from person-to-person through close contact (within 6 feet) and through respiratory droplets when coughing or sneezing. The other way it commonly spreads is through surfaces contaminated with respiratory droplets containing the virus. Someone touches that surface and can transmit the virus to themselves by touching their mouth, nose, or eyes or by transmitting it to someone else by touching them. Even if the virus were to land on food that you ate, there’s no evidence that swallowing the virus leads to infection. It needs to be transmitted to the respiratory system – into the nose, sinuses or lungs.”

Centers for Control Disease and Prevention (CDC), said:

“Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. Before preparing or eating food, it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day, wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom.

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures. You should always handle and prepare food safely, including keeping raw meat separate from other foods, refrigerating perishable foods, and cooking meat to the right temperature to kill harmful germs.”

Disclaimer: These comments were complied to provide journalists with a range of expert perspectives on the subject. The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the experts. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Science Media Centre or any other organisation unless specifically stated. 
Bionotes of experts

Prof Dr Liong Min Tze obtained her PhD in Food Microbiology and Safety from Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia in 2006 before joining Universiti Sains Malaysia. Her research emphasizes on probiotics, prebiotics, nutraceuticals and the utilization of agricultural wastes for the production of by-products. Dr Liong has published over 80 papers in international peer-reviewed journals and she is also on the Editorial Board of several international journals and has reviewed over 100 journal manuscripts for reputable international journals. She has also delivered keynote and plenary lectures both nationally and internationally. Dr Liong was named one of the three top young women scientists in Malaysia (2007) by FWIS L’Oreal-UNESCO. She was also awarded the IAP Young Scientist, to represent Malaysia at the World Science Forum in Budapest to pitch for changes in science policies in the Hungarian Parliament (2015). In 2016, Dr Liong was named as one of the Top Research Scientist Malaysia, awarded by Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM). 

Professor Dr Lee Yeong Yeh is a clinician who specializes in internal medicine and gastroenterology and also a scientist with research interests in the function and diseases of the gut. He is also the editor for BMC Gastroenterology, Journal of Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, PeerJ and Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences.

**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/

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