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Can COVID-19 Spread Through Food Packaging? Here’s What the FDA Says.

With news about COVID-19 detected on food, like frozen chicken wings and fish, you might be wondering whether you can actually get the coronavirus from food or food packaging. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is officially weighing in with some clarity—and reassurance.

The FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) all agree that there is “no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with or as a likely source of viral transmission,” and the risk of contracting COVID-19 this way is “exceedingly low,” according to an FDA announcement from acting commissioner Janet Woodcock M.D. and acting USDA secretary Kevin Shea.

This is not a new position for the FDA, but the agency is strongly affirming its previous findings. “Consumers should be reassured that we continue to believe, based on our understanding of currently available reliable scientific information, and supported by overwhelming international scientific consensus,” the statement says, ”that the foods they eat and food packaging they touch are highly unlikely to spread SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes COVID-19.

The agency’s stance is based on data from the U.S. as well as food safety agencies in the U.K. and New Zealand and researchers worldwide. “Despite the billions of meals and food packages handled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, to date there has not been any evidence that food, food packaging, or food handling is a source or important transmission route for SARS-CoV-2 resulting in COVID-19,” the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF) wrote in a September 2020 opinion paper, quoted by the FDA.

Now, you might remember some headlines from last year about the virus being detected on frozen food. Chinese health authorities detected traces of SARS-CoV-2 on frozen chicken wings in August 2020, and the live virus on frozen cod packaging in October 2020. But no actual cases were linked back to the frozen food. 

Experts thought that was an unlikely scenario at the time, SELF reported. That’s partly because COVID-19 is mainly spread by respiratory droplets and tiny particles expelled by people who have the infection, while fomite transmission (when the virus spreads via particles on surfaces) seems to be less common. And, as SELF reported, infectious disease experts and authorities like the CDC have said it is unlikely that the virus would be present in large enough amounts—and survive on the surface long enough—to actually infect a person. 

“Given that the number of virus particles that could be theoretically picked up by touching a surface would be very small and the amount needed for infection via oral inhalation would be very high,” the FDA explains, “the chances of infection by touching the surface of food packaging or eating food is considered to be extremely low.”

Of course, having no evidence of viral infection via food/food packaging is not the same thing as having evidence that contracting COVID-19 this way is impossible. But the FDA says this type of transmission is exceedingly unlikely based on the large amount of data we have at this point. And as the FDA points out, there have been over 100 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and no epidemiological evidence or surveillance data linking an outbreak to food or food packaging. 

We probably have the nature of COVID-19 transmission to thank for that—as well as the fact that food business operations are supposed to follow safety and hygiene precautions based on FDA regulations. So while washing your hands before eating is as good an idea as ever, you don’t need to stress about wiping down your groceries and takeout. Your efforts are probably better spent masking up and social distancing.

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