Regardless of symptoms, Covid spreads mainly through close contact with people who have the virus. Whether you breathe, speak, cough or sneeze, you can release small droplets containing the virus into the air. Surfaces can then catch these droplets and possibly infect anyone who touches them next. However, food might also become contaminated with traces of the virus this way, according to a new study.
From croissants to peppers and bottled drinks to cheese, researchers from The University of Southampton purposely infected packaging and food products with Covid.
The research team chose items that people might put in their mouth without cooking or washing.
The report revealed that Covid can reside on some ready-to-eat groceries for days but the risk to consumers remains very low, according to the scientists.
While most food products tested saw a “significant drop” in virus levels after the first 24 hours, some traces survived for about a week.
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The research for Food Standards Agency included a variety of foods including grocery, deli and bakery counters.
Furthermore, the team also infected packaged items like drink bottles, cartons and cans with the virus.
The amount of virus they applied to these foods and surfaces was designed to simulate how much might land on food if someone who was infected coughed or sneezed near it.
However, the report stressed that “foods and packaging considered as part of this study were artificially inoculated with Sars-Cov-2 and therefore are not a reflection of contamination levels found on these foods at retail, and lower levels of contamination will require less time to decline to undetectable levels”.
The University of Southampton team penned: “For a highly infectious agent such as Sars-Cov-2, which can be transmitted through touching contaminated surfaces and then the face, these findings are highly noteworthy.
“The public may be interested in the finding that the virus may persist in an infectious state, on foods and food packaging surfaces, for several days under certain common conditions.”
Fortunately, the scientists think there’s no need for shoppers to take extra precautions when handling food.
However, they stress you should stick to rules like washing your hands before preparing and eating food, as well as rinsing fresh produce to help remove any contamination on the surface.
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While surfaces can contain traces of the pesky virus, breathing in infected droplets remains the main way people catch Covid.
How long did the virus survive on foods and packaging?
Fruits and vegetables
The report suggests that coronavirus appears to last longer on produce with uneven surfaces – think broccoli and raspberries – compared to smooth-skinned foods such as apples.
Chilled fresh peppers had detectable traces of the virus a week later, while apples were found to contain natural chemicals in their skin that may start to break down the virus within minutes or hours.
Fortunately, pastries such as pain au chocolat appeared to have little virus after a few hours.
The researchers speculated that this might be owed to the egg wash coating that is applied during baking. Eggs contain arachidonic acid which might have an antiviral effect.
Cheese and cold meat items appear to allow the virus to survive for days or even a week.
Drinks and ready meal containers
Plastic surfaces seem to offer good conditions, allowing the virus to survive for up to a week.
But cartons seem to only contain the virus for several days and aluminium cans only for hours, according to the researchers.
Anthony Wilson, microbiological risk assessment team leader at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) added: “This research gives us additional insight into the stability of coronavirus on the surfaces of a variety of foods and confirms that assumptions we made in the early stages of the pandemic were appropriate, and that the probability that you can catch Covid via food is very low.”