Answers to your questions about COVID-19 and food

Experts from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher, address some frequently asked questions about the new coronavirus, food safety, restaurants, and more

Click on any of the questions below to jump to an answer:


Can coronavirus spread through food?

The current outbreak is not spreading through food. Instead, it’s spreading from person to person through invisible droplets of water that are suspended in the air after someone who is sick sneezes or coughs. Anyone within six feet of an infected person is at risk.

Foodborne viruses like norovirus can live for weeks on surfaces and survive freezing and heating, making it easy to transmit them through foods. We know much less about coronavirus, but the best studies suggest that it probably lives hours or a few days at most, less than most common foodborne germs. The public health officials who track the disease haven’t found any examples of someone catching COVID-19 from food. We’re still learning about this virus, but it’s safe to say that the main action people should focus on is avoiding contact with an infected person, not food.

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I’ve got nausea and diarrhea. Is it COVID-19 or something I ate?

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But a small number of COVID-19 patients have first had symptoms of nausea or diarrhea before developing the more common symptoms of fever and trouble breathing. These gastrointestinal symptoms are much more likely to be caused by foodborne illness or another common infectious disease than coronavirus. You should contact your healthcare provider if you have recently been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and you develop these symptoms, particularly if you also have one of the more common symptoms (fever, cough, or trouble breathing).

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Is it safe to eat at restaurants during the coronavirus outbreak?

The White House has advised that Americans should avoid eating out in restaurants, bars, and food courts, but in many places you can still order drive thru, delivery or takeout. It’s a drastic step, but it is likely to reduce the spread of the virus by limiting contact with infected people. Even young, healthy people are being advised not to eat out, because they can become infected and spread the virus to others, sometimes without even having symptoms themselves. The ultimate goal is to decrease the number of new infections by stopping person-to-person spread, so we can eventually get the outbreak under control and return things to normal.

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Are sick food workers a risk during the outbreak?

Sick food workers can spread COVID-19 disease to each other or to customers, even though they aren’t spreading it through the food itself. Three out of four restaurant workers don’t have paid sick leave, and over half of food workers report that they have gone to work sick. That’s a problem with or without a pandemic, and it can cause the spread of foodborne germs like norovirus (which is not related to coronavirus).

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Which restaurants offer paid leave to sick workers?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has created a consumer’s guide covering the sick leave policies of the 20 largest restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut. We found that only three chains had a paid leave policy that covered all of their locations: Starbucks, Chipotle, and Olive Garden. State or local rules may still require restaurants to offer paid leave, or a local franchise owner may decide to offer benefits that are not required by the national chain. But most workers are just not covered, so they have to choose between coming to work sick or skipping a paycheck. That could mean the difference between working and staying home.

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I’ve heard that some restaurants are paying workers with COVID-19 who have to stay home. Is that true?

Yes. CSPI found that six of the top 20 chains have publicly committed to paying workers with COVID-19 who have to stay home. That’s important because even companies with regular sick leave policies only offer three to eight days of paid time off annually, and workers need to be quarantined at home for two weeks if they’re exposed to the virus. All of these emergency policies cover two weeks’ pay for workers who have to self-quarantine; however, many chains only offer these policies at company-owned locations. For a heavily franchised chain like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or KFC, that means the policy only covers less than 10 percent of its restaurants.

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A lot of food workers are out of work right now. How can I support them?

If you’re ordering out, support the businesses that look out for the health of their employees by choosing a restaurant that offers paid sick leave.

You can also help workers meet their immediate needs during the outbreak by supporting one of the many relief funds being run by nonprofits to support workers, like the Restaurant Worker Disaster Relief Fund set up by the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

Finally, you can call your Congressional representatives and demand that the government act to provide emergency paid sick leave to all workers, as well as emergency family and medical leave. Go to CSPI’s action page and fill in your address for a handy call script.

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I’m eating at home. What are the best foods to stock up on during an outbreak?

Foods from grocery stores are safe to eat during the outbreak, including fresh fruits and vegetables. But if you want to minimize trips to the store, you can stock up on healthy staples like beans and chickpeas, frozen or canned fish, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, and whole grains like oats, brown rice, and whole grain pasta.

Be sure to wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before handling food. Handwashing protects against COVID-19, as well as common foodborne illnesses and other infectious diseases. Avoiding unnecessary medical visits for foodborne illnesses and other common infectious diseases will allow healthcare providers to focus more resources on the outbreak.

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I’m cooking at home more often now. Where can I find healthy recipes?

We have plenty of tips and recipes from Nutrition Action‘s Healthy Cook, Kate Sherwood. Here are links to a few recipes that are heavy on pantry staples or are flexible, so you can modify them to suit what’s in your fridge (or supermarket):

Beans & lentils

Flexible recipes

Tips for using frozen foods

A note about expiration dates on foods in your pantry: Most shelf-stable packaged foods like canned goods, beans, or grains are probably safe to eat, even if they’re past their expiration date. That’s because the dates on non-perishable (and even most perishable) foods refer to a food’s quality, not its safety. Check out our post for more details.

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I’ve heard about a dietary supplement that is supposed to prevent COVID-19. Does it work?

There is no supplement that can treat or prevent COVID-19. Law enforcement should take action to prevent misleading information from those seeking to profit from public anxiety, and we have called on the U.S. government to take those steps when we spotted such fraud. If you come across such claims, do send us an email at policy@cspinet.org or tag us @CSPI on Twitter.

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What can I do to lower my risk of getting sick?

For practical tips that may help lower your risk of getting sick, check out our recent post.

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