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30 Apr 2020

Coronavirus: the latest need-to-know food and eating advice

We address common concerns about the food you eat, as well as how you prepare it and store it during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has given us plenty to think about when it comes to our daily food habits.

We've consulted with experts to find out the latest on whether we really need to wash our fresh produce and remove packaging before we store food, as well as best practice for freezing, defrosting and use-by dates.

Read our latest advice on coronavirus.

Can COVID-19 be transmitted through food?

Last month, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) put out a statement to address fears that food might be involved in coronavirus transmission. Both the UK and the EU food-safety watchdog said there is currently no evidence that this is likely.

According to EFSA, experiences from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses show that transmission through food consumption did not occur.

At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 is any different in this respect.

Do I need to wash fresh food before I store it?

It's always sensible to wash fresh fruit and veg before you eat it, particularly if you're not cooking it first.

The French food safety agency ANSES recently issued advice that coronavirus is sensitive to heat treatment. Heat treatment at 63°C for four minutes can reduce any contamination of a food product by a factor of 10,000.

So if in any doubt, either washing or cooking your food before eating it should kill the virus.

Do I need to wash or remove packaging before storing food?

According to experts, wiping down tins and items of food with an antibacterial wipe after unpacking your shopping isn't necessary.

While removing packaging could be sensible as it might mean you can fit more food into your fridge or freezer, it's not a necessary step to take in order to avoid contracting COVID-19.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) said on 26 March 2020 that it is very unlikely that people can catch COVID-19 from food.

In its 'Guidance for consumers on coronavirus (COVID-19) and food' it says, 'COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging'.

In some cases, particularly with fresh food, removing the packaging could end up being counterproductive. This is because it can lead to the food deteriorating more quickly, meaning you'd end up having to go to the supermarket sooner than necessary.

It could also result in you removing use-by information, which is vital information for food safety.

The latest information on supermarkets and coronavirus.

Is it safe to eat foods after their best-before or use-by date?

The government waste adviser WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) recommends that people refer to the on-pack guidance for best-before dates and information on where to store the product and when to consume it by, but never to consume foods beyond their use-by date.

Simply put, food is safe to eat past its best-before date but not after the use-by date.

If you have too much food we have some useful tips for using up extras and the use-by/best-before for different foods..

Helen White, special adviser at WRAP's citizen campaign, Love Food Hate Waste, says: 'The use-by date is about safety - your food must be used by this date to avoid food poisoning.'

When is it too late to freeze a food?

If your food is safe to freeze, it can be frozen right up to and including the use-by date. By freezing a food, you stop its bacterial growth.

Helen White says: 'Remember, you can freeze your food right up to and including the use-by date, pressing pause on your food to keep it for another day.'

Top five freezers for 2020.

How can I defrost food safely?

When food defrosts, its core temperature rises, providing the perfect conditions for bacteria to grow if it's left at room temperature.

It's best to defrost food slowly and safely in the fridge to avoid it going into the 'Danger Zone' for microbial growth: most harmful bacteria grow at temperatures above 8°C and below 63°C.

The FSA says: 'That's why we advise that the safest way to defrost food is in the fridge overnight. By defrosting in the fridge, your food should never enter the 'Danger Zone'.'

The coldest part of your fridge should be at 5°C or below as some bacteria can grow at lower temperatures than 8°C.

Part of our fridge freezer tests includes checking each model for temperature stability and accuracy, so you can make sure your food is stored at the correct temperature.

Food should be eaten within 24 hours once defrosted.

What food can't I freeze?

Savvy use of your freezer space will help you to cut down on food waste during the pandemic. But not everything freezes well, including these foods:

  • Fried food - the oil will seep through, leaving the food soggy and changing its flavour.
  • Salad greens - lettuce will get soggy and turn to gloop if frozen.
  • Herbs - like basil and chives can be frozen but will only be suitable to add to cooking dishes rather than garnishing.
  • Mayonnaise - and other egg-based sauces will separate and curdle when frozen. Vegetables with a high water content - such as cucumber, bean sprouts and radishes, will typically go soggy.

If you're unsure which foods freeze well, you can read our list of surprising foods you can't freeze and a reminder of what you can.

Find out more about foods that freeze well and foods that don't.

Can I freeze milk?

Milk can be frozen right up to the use-by date and once defrosted and thawed, it should be consumed within 24 hours.

After that it is unsafe to drink, even if it looks and smells fine.

Love Food Hate Waste suggests freezing smaller quantities of milk in an ice cube tray so you can add a cube directly to hot drinks.

Best instant coffee 2020

Can supplements help boost my immune system?

The reality is there is no food or supplement that can boost your immune system.

But food does have an impact on your health, and vitamins and minerals found in foods play an important role in keeping your immune system running as it should.

Staying healthy can be achieved by eating a varied and balanced diet, which includes plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Frozen, tinned and dried fruit and veg are just as good if you can't get hold of fresh.

Watch: How your immune system helps fight viruses

We spoke to Philip Calder, professor of nutritional immunology at the University of Southampton and president of the Nutrition Society.

Vitamin D and your immune system

Vitamin D helps to keep your immune system functioning properly.

Usually at this time of the year we get enough vitamin D from sun exposure, however at the moment we're all inside a little more than usual.

Although there are some foods that contain vitamin D, such as eggs, oily fish and mushrooms, it's hard to get enough from dietary sources alone, and our main source is sunlight.

That's why last week Public Health England (PHE) released updated advice recommending everyone to take a 10-microgram vitamin D supplement for the duration of the 'stay-home' period.

This advice applies to all groups, not only those classed as 'vulnerable'.

Should I take vitamin C supplements?

Vitamin C is another important vitamin that keeps your immune system working as it should.

However there are lots of food sources of vitamin C and it's easy to get what you need by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli and potatoes.

You definitely don't need to be spending money on supplements, especially high dose ones. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, this means your body can't store it so once it's taken what it needs for the day it excretes the rest in urine.

So you're literally flushing money down the loo.

Can I order takeaway food?

According to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), takeaway orders should not be made in person on the premises. You should order online or by telephone in advance.

If you are collecting your food in person from a takeaway or restaurant that offers a pick-up service, you should adhere to the social distancing rules set out by the food business.

This may include having staggered collection times and using a queue management system to maintain the two-metre separation.

Staff preparing your food should regularly wash their hands and maintain good hygiene practices in food preparation and handling areas.

You can check the food hygiene ratings of restaurants or takeaways in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland on the FSA website.

Remember government advice on social distancing applies to those delivering food.

You should minimise the chance of coronavirus spreading by maintaining a distance of two metres when the food is delivered.

The best and worst places to eat in the UK for food hygiene.