A reader writes: I live in Monterey, California. I’m 77 and my husband is 82. I’m wondering, with the large number of COVID-positive farm workers in our area, how safe it is for us to be eating local produce such as romaine lettuce which could have been picked by an infected ag worker? Also, how safe is pork and chicken? Thank you for your help, Barbara. I haven’t seen articles in our papers about this concern. — Meredith
I attended a webinar on this topic recently. It was sponsored by the Alliance for Food and Farming, a nonprofit organization which represents fruit and vegetable farmers.
One speaker was Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus, a food virologist (she studies viruses in food) at North Carolina State University. She told us “the virus” that causes COVID is not a food-borne virus. It is mainly spread through the air by close contact with other people. For instance, she said a person can get enough of this virus to become sick after speaking for just 5 minutes to an infected person.
We can also be infected by touching objects that a person with the virus has touched, including plastic and stainless steel.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization, there is currently no credible evidence that COVID-19 is transported to us from food or food packaging.
That does not mean we can forget general food safety recommendations, however. From farm to fork and every contact with our food in between, we all have an obligation to wash our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before handling or eating food. And we especially must wash our hands after coughing, sneezing, blowing our nose or going to the bathroom.
We also heard from Kay and Chris Filice, whose family farm grows organic and conventional lettuce, spinach and other crops in San Benito County, California. They reminded us that farmers and their employees are a big part of our essential workforce to keep the supply of healthful foods coming to us. This pandemic has caused them to expand their food safety measures many steps farther.
Field workers must wear masks and practice social distancing, even in the fields, they explained. More facilities have been provided for workers to wash and disinfect their hands. And sick pay is provided for those who don’t feel well and need to stay home.
One last thing. Dr Jaykus reminded us that cooking a food for 4 minutes at 63 degrees C (145 degrees F) can inactivate the COVID-causing virus. Pasteurized milk or your cooked pork and chicken all meet this criteria.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to email@example.com.