What Immunocompromised People Need to Know About Food Safety Amid COVID-19 and Beyond
I think it is safe to say that everyone (including me) is experiencing the uncertainties and anxiety of COVID-19. This is exceptionally difficult for vulnerable groups because the media is heightening our natural fear of getting sick with the virus because our immunocompromised bodies can’t fight it. A whirlwind of social media posts has created a lot of confusion about how to properly handle and prepare food. Some of these suggestions include washing produce with soap and bleach, leaving groceries outside for 3 days, to avoid takeout food and to wear masks at the grocery store. There is a lot of misinformation these days and I am here to clarify it for you.
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a virus that affects the respiratory system and spreads through direct and indirect contact. Person to person contact directly passes the fluids from an infected person to a noninfected person. Whereas, surfaces indirectly pass the virus if an infected person coughed or sneezed on it. The virus does not grow on surfaces, but it can survive for up to 72 hours or less.
What Does it Mean to be Immunocompromised?
People who are immunocompromised have a weakened immune system, which means it is hard for their body to fight infections and other diseases. Individuals who have cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, have undergone organ transplants, or suffer from alcoholism are considered to have a weakened immune system. People with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, inflammatory bowel disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjögren’s syndrome, who are taking immunosuppressant medication are immunocompromised too.
Can I get COVID-19 from Food?
Health Canada has said, “there is currently no evidence to suggest that food is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus and there are currently no reported cases of COVID 19 transmission through food. People are unlikely to be infected with the virus through food.”
There is concern that food packaging spreads COVID-19. The CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) says COVID-19 has poor survivability on surfaces- the virus can last up to three days on metals/plastic and one day on carboard. Hence, there is an extremely low risk of catching the virus from food products that are shipped over a few days or weeks.
So, should people with a weakened immune system follow these outrageous ‘tips’ posted on social media? The rest of this post will cover all the questions that people with a weakened immune system have.
How Can I Protect Myself at the Grocery Store?
Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before going to the grocery store. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Sanitize your grocery cart or basket with disinfecting wipes (immediately discard the wipe).
Keep a 6 ft (2 meters) distance from shoppers, staff and security (follow the stickers on the floor and signs on the isles).
Avoid touching your face or personal items like your cell phone (write your grocery list on a piece of paper that can be thrown out after)!
Do not touch the food and products that you will not buy.
Bring your own grocery bags (if you are using disposable bags, throw them away).
Use tap transactions (instead of cash or coins) if possible.
Minimize your trips to the grocery store and avoid peak hours (if you can, go during the special hours designated for vulnerable groups).
There is a lot of talk about wearing gloves and masks. This is entirely up to you- whatever makes you feel safe. Wearing gloves can create false security and prompts you to touch your face more. Just remember that wearing gloves does not mean you can touch your face and stop washing your hands. Continue to wash your hands before putting gloves on, in between changing gloves and after you take off your gloves. As with masks, they do not necessarily protect you, they protect everyone around you from your fluids. If you decide to wear one, use a cloth one that you can make at home (see these tips to do so).
If you do not feel comfortable going to a grocery store, ask a family member or a friend who is not at such a high risk to do your grocery shopping or consider online delivery. There are websites like, Instacart that deliver groceries from local stores and drop them off at your door or for curbside pickup. Grocery stores like No Frills allow you to order groceries online, and you, a family member or a friend can pick it up. For more options, see these ideas.
How do I Unpack my Groceries?
Place groceries in one location in your kitchen.
Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds after coming home from the grocery store.
Keep raw food and ready-to-eat food/cooked foods separate.
Rinse fruits and vegetables before storing (do not wash with soap as it can cause vomiting or diarrhea).
Sanitize the location where you placed your groceries.
Good news- you do not need to wipe down every product like cereal boxes and milk bags that the YouTube videos keep telling you to do! According to the CDC, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the World Health Organization, wiping down each product creates a safety hazard due to the chemicals found in disinfecting wipes.
How Should I Cook my Food?
Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before cooking and after touching raw meat.
Rinse fruits and vegetables before eating them.
Use different utensils, bowls and cutting boards for raw foods and ready-to-eat food/cooked foods
Cook foods to reach an internal temperature of 74 °C (165 °F).
Should I Order Take-Out?
Yes, ordering take-out is safe since. It is a theoretical risk of contracting the virus from an infected person touching a delivered take-out carton. Follow these simple steps that will protect you:
Discard the cardboard, cartons or wrappers the food was delivered in.
Transfer the food onto a plate using any utensils (fork or tongs).
Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before enjoying your meal!
What Can I do to Preserve my Fruits and Vegetables?
Avoid buying fruits and vegetables that are bruised or damaged.
Separate fruits and vegetables from raw meats in your grocery cart, bags and fridge (always put raw meat at the bottom of your fridge).
Refrigerate your fruits and vegetables, including the pre-cut and ready-to-eat ones (make sure your fridge is set to 4 °C).
Wash fruits and vegetables under cool, running water before eating them (even if they will be peeled).
Scrub fruits and vegetables with rinds or hard surfaces like oranges and potatoes.
Cut any damaged or bruised areas off.
Even after all these useful tips, the two most successful ones are to practice social distancing and to wash your hands frequently! I hope this post can give you clarity and ease your mind during a time where we are being bombarded with so much information. If you feel any different or experience the common symptoms (cough, fever, and shortness of breath), contact a health professional. Remember, you know your body the best!
Special thanks to Emily Malfara, 3rd-year nutrition student at Ryerson University who assisted with the research and writing for this post.