Hi Kenneth,

In order to reconcile the fact that the CDC says that there’s no significant risk from eating take-out food, you have to ask yourself how likely it is that the person who prepared your food forcefully sneezed or coughed directly into it — because that’s what it would likely require to achieve a critical mass of virions that would live long enough to get into your mouth when you eat it. I’m willing to trust that food service employees are not likely to do that, and barring that circumstance, it would be difficult to contaminate food to the point of infectiousness.

The research that everyone is basing their fear of groceries, packaging and take-out on was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, where researchers tried to replicate the spray of virions from a cough or a sneeze by using synthetic aerosols, and then tested various surfaces for the presence of virions. They determined that active virus can be detected on cardboard for up to 24 hours. (https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/new-coronavirus-stable-hours-surfaces)

The things to keep in mind about this study are:

  1. It took place in a lab, under controlled conditions. Virions in real-world environments are exposed to UV, to outside air, to heat and cold, and are likely to degrade faster than they would in a lab. In fact, the scientists who conducted this study want to use the results to inform intubation procedures at hospitals — they do not intend to make claims about what happens to the virus in the “wild.”
  2. The study used a high concentration of virus, as could emanate from a forceful direct cough or sneeze. In order for the experiment’s results to be relevant in the real world, that take-out meal would have had to have been literally sneezed on by someone within a few hours of you eating it, not just touched.

This is why, for me, it makes sense that food is not a primary vector. If you have qualms about a particular establishment’s hygiene practices in general, then avoid ordering food from there. I see no reason not to trust the CDC on this, especially given that we have no evidence to believe otherwise. (https://www.livescience.com/coronavirus-food-risk.html)

From the moment the virus leaves a body, it begins to degrade and deactivate. Additionally, viral infection requires a critical mass of active virions. Definitely keep up the hand-washing before you eat, because that’s the most important thing.

I hope this helps to put things into perspective. For further reading, this is a dense (but helpful) article that explains the basis for everything I’ve said here in more detail: https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/16/coronavirus-can-become-aerosol-doesnt-mean-doomed/

A.M. Carter earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. She writes about philosophy, science, politics and current events.

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