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COVID-19: Can the virus be transmitted on the food we grow and buy?

The presence of Covid-19 in the U.S. raises many questions about the food our farmers grow, and the fruits and vegetables we grow at home. Spring is coming after all, and we will soon be planting our gardens!

Here are some up-to-date answers to some of those questions from Extension's Annalisa Hultberg and our On-Farm Food Safety team. 

Can the virus be transmitted by food?

Currently, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. Because of its low survival rate on surfaces, there is thought to be little evidence of transmission via food surfaces, packaging, cardboard, plastic, etc. 

Research recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine states that coronavirus is thought to persist on surfaces like plastic and metal for up to 3 days, cardboard up to 24 hours, and in the air for up to 3 hours. 

Again, at this time the primary transmission route is person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets. That is not to say that food or food packaging could never transmit the virus, but it is not the primary transmission route. 

Regarding food safety, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued precautionary recommendations including advice on following good hygiene practices during food handling and preparation, such as washing hands, cooking meat thoroughly and avoiding potential cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked foods.

Also, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which has been closely monitoring the outbreak, published this article:
Coronavirus: no evidence that food is a source or transmission route

How can farmers and home gardeners minimize the spread of the virus?

While the primary transmission of the virus occurs between people, a sick person can transfer viral particles to equipment, door handles, tools or other surfaces. 

Extension experts encourage home gardeners, along with commercial fruit and vegetable growers to take these key steps to minimize the spread: 
  • Wash your hands regularly before harvesting or washing produce, after using the restroom, after eating and before putting on gloves.*
  • Don't let sick people near your produce.
  • Clean and sanitize surfaces, especially those touched frequently. A thorough cleaning and sanitizing regimen includes rinsing visible dirt from a surface, cleaning with detergent and water, rinsing and then sanitizing with an approved sanitizing agent. (See information below on disinfectants and how to make a sanitizer from bleach at home.)
*Note: Gloves are no better than bare hands if you don't change them as often as you would wash your hands. Hands and gloves will be contaminated if you cough or sneeze into them or touch a surface with viral particles. Always wash your hands well before putting on gloves and change them frequently like between tasks or if they get dirty or torn. 

What about food sold at Farmer's Markets and through CSA's?

The Minnesota Department of Health is communicating the best practices to food handlers who deliver food to consumers.  

Farmer's Markets: Many farmers' markets are moving toward innovative scheduled pick-up solutions that reduce human contact. Here are some of the other precautions you might find if you go to the Farmer's Market this spring and summer:
  • Handwashing stations should be available and signs to encourage visitors to follow social distancing guidelines.
  • There will likely be required distances between customers, and between customers and vendors.
  • Vendors may stop giving samples to customers. 
  • Sellers may use gloves when handling money, and when they handle and package items for customers. Vendors should hand-sanitize after touching money.
  • Anyone displaying symptoms may be asked to leave. 
CSAs: Minnesota farmers are coming up with ideas of how to reduce your risk of infection at drop sites. Here's a sampling of what you might see happening: 
  • CSA's may move to home deliveries.
  • Cross-contamination at drop-off sites reduced on things like pens and pencils, clip boards, surfaces where boxes are left. Boxes may be stacked differently so people won't have to touch a lot of boxes to find theirs.
  • You may be assigned a time for pick up to avoid too much traffic at once.
  • Growers may add additional sites to minimize the number of people at each site.
  • You may be encouraged to wash your hands at stations at drop-off and pick up sites and to follow social distancing guidelines.

A chlorine sanitizing solution you can make at home

A simple and effective sanitizing solution can be made using 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) of

household bleach (non-scented, 5.25 - 6% sodium hypochlorite) per 1 gallon of water. This results in a solution with a concentration of 500 ppm chlorine and has been shown to be effective against viruses like coronavirus (link to CDC: Clean & Disinfect: Interim Recommendations for US Households with Suspected/Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019). 

Want the scientist's perspective on sanitizers? This article looks at the effectiveness of disinfectants:

What's the latest on COVID-19?

You can find up-to-date information about the current outbreak here: 

Authors: Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator On- Farm Food Safety, compiled by Gail Hudson, Yard & Garden News Editor, UMN Extension

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