FACT CHECK: Is it possible to get sick from food handled by a farm worker who has COVID-19?
FALSE. It’s highly unlikely that a consumer could get COVID-19 from food handled by an infected farm worker.
A Walrus reader asked this week whether migrant workers could spread COVID-19 via the food they handle, even if they are asymptomatic. The reader was probably referring to the Ontario government’s decision to allow farm employees who tested positive for COVID-19, but who weren’t showing symptoms, to keep working in fields separate from other workers.
While guidance from the provincial government says asymptomatic workers can “work-isolate,” not all farms will be taking advantage of the new policy. The medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex County, which has experienced a large outbreak of cases on farms, has decided not to allow asymptomatic farm employees to return to work in most cases.
The threat to farmworkers themselves is far greater than the risk to consumers. There have been more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 among migrant workers and three men have died, according to a survey of public-health units by the Globe and Mail. At a farm in Norfolk County with almost 200 cases, crowded living conditions and a lack of protective equipment are likely to have exacerbated the crisis.
It’s possible, but highly unlikely, to contract COVID-19 from food or food packaging, according to the World Health Organization—and there’s no evidence that transmission has ever happened that way. As of July 18, the Canadian government reported that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 spreading through food. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has also stated that there is no evidence of the virus spreading from food production and packaging facilities to consumers.
Unlike bacteria, the virus requires a living host to survive and cannot grow on food. It’s possible to transmit COVID-19 through the contaminated surface of food or packaging, but it is not believed to be the main way that the virus spreads. The few studies done so far suggest that the virus can only survive for a few hours to three days at most on surfaces, and that it becomes less and less infectious over time as it disintegrates.
There’s also other factors working against the virus when it comes to food. Measures like masks, hand washing, and sanitizing surfaces at the farm can help prevent the virus from getting onto food. Once the food has been purchased, basic steps like washing your hands with soap after shopping, washing fresh produce under cold water, and cooking reduces the risk even further. That applies even if the virus ends up on food another way, such as from another customer or an employee at a grocery store.
Overall, it’s highly unlikely that you could contract COVID-19 from food picked by a migrant worker at a farm, and it’s more risky to be near someone who could sneeze on you than it is to eat an apple or strawberry from the grocery store.
We’ve previously mentioned that there’s a spectrum of risk involved with COVID-19. Eating raw fruit and vegetables is at the low end of the spectrum, but you can still take steps to be safe. You can view the full list of suggested food safety practices from the Canadian government here.
Photo via Pexels.