I was the 136th journalist to interview Ben Chapman this month. That’s not exactly surprising — we are in the middle of a pandemic, and Chapman is a food safety specialist who studies foodborne illness and has a podcast about how to avoid it. The North Carolina State University professor has been all over newspapers, radio shows, and websites like this one discussing how not to contract or spread the coronavirus through cooking, shopping, and food delivery.
There’s just one problem: People don’t seem to want to hear the best answers.
“We’re looking for all these other things that we could do,” he says, like spraying your vegetables with Lysol (don’t do this!) or leaving every cardboard box outside for three days before touching it (unnecessary!). Instead, the real answers just aren’t that exciting.
When it comes to food and the coronavirus, the biggest threat is person-to-person contact in grocery stores. If you can, use contactless delivery and tip generously; if you need to go to a physical store, wear a mask and stay six feet away from other shoppers. Always make sure to wash your hands after returning from the store or unpacking your delivered goods. And remember: The impact of not being a jerk to the people in the long chain of how your food ends up in your kitchen is much more significant than the potential threat of you getting the coronavirus from a box of cereal.
I spoke to Chapman about the most common questions and misconceptions people have about food right now, and the best practices for stopping the spread of Covid-19. We also chatted about common food safety mistakes people tend to make when they’re cooking at home, something many of us are doing more of now.
What’s this all been like for you as a food safety expert? Have you been talking to a lot of press?
It’s been overwhelming. No joke, I think you’re number 136. It’s not often you find yourself in the middle of this. There’s usually a lot of other people that are commenting, now it’s three of us, for whatever reason. There are three people that are doing interviews for the academic world.
Despite all the work Vox and other publications are putting out about coronavirus best practices, people still have so many questions. What are the biggest misconceptions about food safety that you’re seeing?
The biggest risk that we know of for Sars-CoV-2 and Covid-19 is being around other people. That’s why physical distancing is so important. If we look at the clusters of illnesses — the CDC is releasing information about this every couple of days — there’s a fascinating report of an outbreak in Chicago back in February. It was an individual who was asymptomatic but went to a funeral and embraced a bunch of people. That cluster typifies what is leading to community spread, which is people being around other people. It’s not a mystery.
The mystifying part about it is like, “Okay, got it, so don’t be around other people.” We, societally, can’t seem to get that under control. We either don’t believe it or don’t want to do it, so we’re looking for all these other things that we could do — it’s gone into food, it’s gone into HVAC systems. That part, as someone who does food safety outreach and research, is really interesting because I think we’re spending a lot of time answering the questions on why it’s not a food safety issue, but people want to look for the sexiest thing that they could do on this, which is like, “I’m gonna show you how serious I am about it, my food’s going to stay outside for three days, I’m gonna spray everything with Lysol, this is a big deal.”
It’s not that sexy. How about just wash your hands? I work with colleagues who do risk perceptions, and I do risk communication around food safety as a research area. One of the things that I think we’ll see as we investigate what’s happening more is that people just want some control. If I choose to wash all of my produce in dilute chlorine, well, that’s gotta be better and I’ve got control. The problem is, science doesn’t say that you should do that. People are really grasping at all the things that they can do.
What are the biggest questions you’ve been getting asked?
Is takeout food safe? Should I be going to the grocery store? What should I do when I go to the grocery store? Should I be leaving my food outside?
Yeah, takeout is okay. I think that having touchless, interaction-less delivery really, really helps because the big issue is interacting with people. If I can order a pizza and someone drops it off on my doorstep, and then sends me a text and says it’s here and we don’t have to talk to each other, that’s great. If takeout or delivery were to become problematic, it would be if we’re not practicing that interactionless process.
We don’t have any epidemiology pointing toward food or food packaging as a risk factor for getting Covid-19. Federal agencies are really working on that every day to make sure that that’s correct.
The biology of the virus really points to consumption not being a factor for us. So could the virus be on food? Yes. But am I likely to get sick from it? No, because of all of these factors around biology and epidemiology. Could someone inadvertently put the virus on a package? Yes, absolutely, but I can mitigate that risk by washing my hands.
We all have to be really careful of saying, in this time of uncertainty, “Yeah, don’t worry about it. This is zero risk.” Because there’s always a chance. But we have a very good, effective step in hand-washing as a way to limit and mitigate it.
What about theoreticals, like, what if a food worker coughs in my delivery food?
One of the things that I would highlight is all the stuff that we’re putting in place to make sure that a food worker does not do that in the first place. From a food safety systems standpoint, evaluating the health of employees, having employee health policies — this is something that we do all the time in the food industry for normal virus reasons, for pathogenic E. coli and salmonella reasons. We make sure that people don’t come to work ill, and put a process in place to make sure that their hand-washing and sanitizing is there.
But let’s go down this theoretical path: Someone coughs on my food and places a virus there. What we don’t have is a direct line to illness. It’s gross, but that’s different. There isn’t this direct line. If someone coughs on my food, do I want to eat virus-coughed-on food? Probably not, but is it a risk factor for getting sick? We don’t have any data that points to that right now.
We would expect to see it because we have tens of thousands of food handlers internationally that are Covid-positive that have symptoms and even more that are asymptomatic. But we don’t have any examples of an individual coughing and dispersing that virus then leading to illness in people that have no connection other than eating food that came from the same grocery store or restaurant.
We can spend time on the theoretical risks, and that’s what we’re doing in trying to answer all these questions, but it’s still very much a theoretical kind of thing. Why don’t we focus on why there are high-risk individuals that are going to the grocery store without masks on? That’s a real, real issue.
Another popular question seems to be, do we need to cook the virus out of all of our food?
It’s a good question, and we have a data gap. We just don’t have a lot of information. What we know about SARS-CoV-1 is that, at higher temperatures, it gets inactivated. We don’t know what the magic temperature is, and so spending a lot of time on that now is tough, especially because we already have a very, very unlikely root of contamination. We don’t know what the right temperature is to tell people, and this is what we do all the time.
In poultry cooking, cooking to 165 degrees, that’s decades worth of science work that goes into that number. We’re only 100 days into this, and at some point in the future we may have better information, but I have real trouble with saying, “It is going to reduce your risk if you heat your leftovers up to 165 degrees,” because 165 may not be the right number. It may not actually change the risk at all. It’s not going to make it worse, that part I do know.
More people are cooking at home now. As a food safety expert, what are the biggest mistakes people tend to make when they’re starting as a beginner?
This is exactly the area I work in all the time. Over the past few years, we’ve conducted a bunch of research projects on behalf of the federal government observing people cooking different types of food.
The three big ones are: Hand-washing during meal preparation is almost nonexistent, and those hands can facilitate movement of pathogens. The more people that wash their hands, even if it’s not perfect, there’s a reduction of risk.
No. 2 would be thermometer use. Cooking foods to a specific temperature is something we don’t see done all the time. People get pretty confident like, “That turkey burger is done,” without checking the temperature. We see a lot of variability that could lead to risk.
The third thing is cleaning and sanitizing, especially around food preparation. We did a study where we recruited people who said that they washed poultry and then we saw that the sink basin gets really contaminated. We said, “Clean up like you would at home,” and cleaning and sanitizing stuff almost never happened.
People are obviously very scared right now. What’s your biggest concern in terms of consumer food safety?
We see about 48 million cases of foodborne illness a year. That’s 3,000 deaths, 125,000 hospitalizations. I don’t want to say food safety is more important than Covid-19, because it’s not. When we’re in a crisis, it’s not even close. But it is something that we’re dealing with all the time. If we are able to impact food safety a little bit with adding some more hand-washing and using thermometers, that would really reduce those illnesses. It’s a fact.