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"Is Takeout Safe?" and Other Food Safety Questions

Right now, ordering takeout and even bringing home groceries can provoke anxiety. QDT's Nutrition Diva Monica Reinagel, a licensed nutritionist, shares her tips for keeping you and your family safe.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
10-minute read
Episode #375
takeout delivery
The Quick And Dirty
  • The risk of transmission of coronavirus through surfaces is low
  • To be extra cautious, put nonperishable items aside for a day or two before using them
  • Wash your hands after unboxing carryout, receiving deliveries, or bringing home groceries and putting them away
  • Please eat your fruits and vegetables! Wash them with water as you normally would and add friction as you wash if possible
  • When ordering take out, choose places you trust to use proper hygeine

Welcome! Today, I am very excited because we have licensed nutritionist Monica Reinagel with us. She's also the host of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast, Nutrition Diva. Click the audio player or the link to your favorite podcast app above to listen to the interview.

I'm very much looking forward to picking your brain today, Monica.

It's great to be here with you, Sabrina.

Obviously, most of us don't grow our own food in the home. We have to go out and get food somehow. So I was hoping we could talk about some of those food safety issues.

Absolutely. I should probably start with a little bit of a disclaimer though. Food safety and safe food handling are definitely part of our brief as nutrition professionals and dieticians. That's one of the things we cover, and we try to help consumers understand how to prevent, foodborne illness—things like not cross-contaminating your cutting boards in your kitchen or how to make sure that nobody gets salmonella from the potato salad at 4th of July. That's definitely one of the things that we include in our training and that we try to educate the public about.

We are really relying on the CDC and the infectious disease specialists—the virologists, the epidemiologists—to help us understand what the features of this virus are so we can give good advice.

But now, we have a novel virus that just kind of appeared on the scene about four or five months ago. We're still trying to figure out how it behaves, how it's transmitted. And that's put us in a little bit of an uncomfortable position of trying to give advice and answer questions with a really incomplete data set. So we are really relying on the CDC and the infectious disease specialists—the virologists, the epidemiologists—to help us understand what the features of this are so that we can give good advice. But we don't really have well-established best practices yet because we just haven't had enough time to develop those.

So, we're doing the best we can with kind of incomplete information. The guidance is changing rapidly as we learn more. So sometimes we have to correct. And you know, that's part of our job as science professionals and science communicators too, is to say, "Okay, that thing I said? We have new and better information now and we're going to give you advice and guidance."

Yeah. And that is my favorite thing about science. You get to keep poking at things and the data will lead you in the right direction. But I understand that some people get frustrated or that makes them uncomfortable with science because it makes it look or seem like we don't know what we're doing when really, we're just gathering the pieces. 

I understand that too because now it's not just an interesting question that we're looking for the answer to. People are really concerned about the safety of their families and what should I be doing? I will try to share the best information that I've been able to gather with you and your listeners today.

Great. One of the questions that comes up with my friend group is when I go out and get groceries, do I need to wipe them down? Do I need to take a Clorox wipe to every egg, every apple, every box before I bring it in my house? Because potentially there could be something on that surface.

Potentially there could. We have to look at how likely there is to have been contamination and when it might've occurred. One thing that people sometimes forget is that the virus doesn't live forever on surfaces. And on a lot of surfaces, it doesn't actually live very long at all. So you have to ask yourself, how recently could this potentially have been contaminated? And in a lot of cases, time will have taken care of it for you. For example, I got a box of pantry supplies from an online grocer that had been ground shipped to me. So, it was underway for a week in that cardboard box. Every single thing that was in that box—my almond flour, my baking powder, I can't remember all what was in there—had been packed a week before, and then it was on a UPS truck or something for a week.

Time is really an ally when we're worried about surfaces because the virus can only live for so long on various kinds of surfaces.

So when it arrived on my porch, I was conscious that the driver who had just dropped it off had just touched it and that I wanted to be aware of what might be on the outside of the box, but I wasn't at all concerned about what was inside the box because I knew it had not been exposed anytime recently. So time is really an ally here when we're worried about surfaces because the virus can only live for so long on various kinds of surfaces. So when you come home from the grocery store, I certainly don't think you need to unpack your eggs from the egg carton. And because they were packed in that carton, you know, a long time, you don't have to take every carrot out of the plastic bag and scrub it.

You could wipe down the cans and the boxes before you put them in the pantry. I think that would be an abundance of caution. Really the most important thing you want to do is, once you've put your groceries away, wash your hands and wash your hands the right way—the whole way, the whole 20 seconds—so that whatever you may have come in contact with doesn't get transferred to your face. That's where the rubber meets the road—where the fingers meet the face. And so that's the transaction that we need to be most conscious of, not having a can sitting in the pantry that a week ago might've been touched by somebody else.

Sure. I've seen one study done where they looked at a fomite transfer—the possible infectious agents on surfaces—and they saw that it can live on paper for 24 hours—so that's like cardboard, that's your boxes—and some metals and plastic for up to three days. But that doesn't mean that it's still capable of infecting you if there's traces of it.

And on top of that, they saw exponential decline. So, we're all learning about exponential growth, right? Exponential decline is on the other side. Even after four hours, eight hours, these surfaces had almost nothing on them. I saw an interview with a scientist who led that study and he said he doesn't wipe down his groceries. He said, if you're really worried, if there's something nonperishable, put it in the closet and don't touch it for a couple of days and then, you know, you're safe. But for perishable things, he had the exact same advice. Bring it inside, put it away, wash your hands, you're good.

And the other thing about that study, about how long things were lasting on surfaces and the steep degradation, is that [the study] was also in a closed lab with without sunshine, without wind. If a box has been sitting on my front porch for a couple of hours, that's a really different scenario than in a closed lab where nothing's going anywhere. So, those are probably worst-case scenarios.

Oh yeah, absolutely. And of course, if you're a high-risk person, you might want to take more extreme precautions. But for most of us, time is the key.

And the longer we go here, we can see that we're now eight, 10 weeks into this and we still don't have a single case of transmission that was thought to be due to food, groceries, packages and mail, anything.

So how do you feel about takeout? What are the best practices you would suggest for takeout food?

Well, we're recording this on May 15th, and at this point, anyone who is involved in any aspect of food service preparation should be masked the entire time, and that would be an important step. So one thing I would say is that I would choose vendors, restaurateurs, take out places that you feel like you can trust to follow best practices, that you feel confident that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. And that the guys back in the kitchen, the guys packing the takeout fare, are properly masked. That would be my first question.

With takeout, as long as I feel confident that the folks in the kitchen are following the proper precautions, and the driver's masked when he drops it off, I bring it in.

And then when the driver comes up, of course, everybody needs to be masked. Our biggest concerns are each other—it's breathing into each other's faces. That's where this gets transmitted. So with takeout, as long as I feel confident that the folks in the kitchen are following the proper precautions, the driver's masked when he drops it off, I bring it in.

We just had takeout for the first time actually last night. We brought it in, and we moved it from the containers onto our own serving plates. We threw all of the disposable stuff in the trash. We washed our hands properly, and then we sat down and didn't think another thing about it. 

I have two small children and so we definitely do take out. I also live in a city where we have a very vibrant food culture and I want all those restaurants to still be there after this. So we've been doing takeout and we do the same thing. We take it out of the containers, ditch the containers, wash our hands. I've heard advice that if you're extra worried about it, you can stick to cooked food because [the virus is] not going to survive being cooked.

That's right. Or just reheat it when it gets home to you. Although, I would caution people not to count on their microwave ovens to do that job for them because microwave heating is notoriously uneven. You can always have little cool pockets. So you're better off doing that either on a stovetop or in an oven, if that's your goal.

Yes. It always amazes me that we haven't made a better microwave. So, what about a friend making food for you?

Your impulse to hug your friend when they came to drop off the cookies would put you at greater risk than the cookie.

Well again, time is our ally here. The virus is not going to live terribly long on the surface of a loaf of bread, a chocolate chip cookie, and so we have that benefit. We hope we can attest to our friends, if they're not feeling well, they're not baking for the neighborhood. But they're probably not wearing a mask in their kitchen. But again, the virus just doesn't live that long on surfaces. Your impulse to hug your friend when they came to drop off the cookies would put you at greater risk than the cookie.

Yeah, absolutely. When we think of very contagious viruses, we think of something like norovirus that lives for days, whereas this particular virus does seem to fall off pretty fast. 

And remember that the virus also still has to travel from whatever it's on before it's degraded. It needs an entry point into your body. I know we've been saying it since day one, and I still think it's the most important message, is the proper handwashing especially when you're handling packages, food, mail, people, whatever. That's the time that you want to be incredibly vigilant about not touching your face.

If you were in contact with the virus, it's still on the outside of your glove and your glove can transfer it to your face just as easily as your naked finger can. We still have to wash our hands when we take off our gloves.

And I will say that sometimes wearing disposable gloves ... sometimes gives people a false sense of security because they feel like, Oh, I've got gloves on. So the virus didn't touch my skin. But if you were in contact with that virus, it's still on the outside of your glove and your glove can transfer that virus to your face just as easily as your naked finger can. So remember that we still have to wash our hands when we take off our gloves.

One more question. What about drinking water? Tap water? What I've read is that there's no evidence that the virus is transmitted through tap water.

We filter our [water] with a little pitcher filter because we don't like the taste of the chlorine. But if you don't mind the taste of your water in normal times, there'd be no reason to filter it now because of the coronavirus. One more thing we don't have to worry about.

Thankfully, because there are enough things to worry about.

And the other question that I hear a lot is how to clean produce. People are worried that they can't adequately disinfect apples or a head of lettuce or a box of berries, should you be lucky enough to find one. And, again, we do not see fresh food produce being a vector of transmission here probably because it's not a great surface for the virus to hang out on, and so it just doesn't survive. And actually, there have been some kind of homegrown attempts to disinfect produce that have done more damage than good. We do not recommend soaking your produce in a bleach solution no matter how diluted, or washing it with dish soap, or washing it with hand soap or hand sanitizer, none of that.

We do not see fresh food produce being a vector of transmission here probably because it's not a great surface for the virus to hang out on.

Don't put those things on your food. And the reason is just that if they're not perfectly rinsed, completely rinsed off, ingesting even small quantities of [those chemicals] can make you sick. And that's definitely not what we're going for. Moreover, it's not necessary. Just wash your produce the way you always (hopefully) have been under clear running water. If it's something that you can give a little friction to—if you can rub those apples, rub those cucumbers, polish the tomatoes a little bit—that mechanical friction can actually also help remove whatever's on there. Dirt, bacteria, germs, even light pesticide residue that may be there.

So continue to wash your produce well in water and then put it in the fridge and don't worry about it or put it on the counter and don't worry about it. Please eat your vegetables! Don't stop eating your vegetables. But please don't be washing your fruits and vegetables in anything other than water or, at best, a fruit and vegetable wash that's been developed specifically for that purpose.

Yes. And that mechanical action is a big contributor to how washing your hands works, in general. For some viruses, you are actually disabling the virus, but sometimes it's the mechanical breaking up of things that is making it work.

Right. And you know, sometimes bacteria will form little biofilms that help them cling to the surface of produce. The way you remove those is actually physically just kind of rubbing them off. If it's lettuce and something you can't massage, just run it under water and don't worry about it.

Well thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us. This was really great.

Oh, it's my pleasure. It's my pleasure. Let's do the things we can and try to relax and enjoy, if nothing else, a little bit of extra time with our families

I don't know if you've been hearing mine. They're certainly here. Thank you so much, Monica. 

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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