Is takeout and delivery food safe?

FILE -- A staff member wears a mask while working at Chops in Atlanta, May 8, 2020. In most places, takeout and delivery are still the most available and convenient option for those who would rather not cook during the coronavirus pandemic. (Peyton Fulford/The New York Times)
As America begins to reopen for business, restaurants in several states have reopened for indoor dining. Others, like those in Connecticut and New Mexico, are serving outdoors only. Restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles allow no sit-down service at all.

In most places, takeout and delivery are still the most available and convenient option for those who would rather not cook during the coronavirus pandemic. But many questions remain about the risks of those methods. Here are some answers from food-safety specialists and public health experts.

Is takeout or delivery safer?

“There’s very little evidence of transmission by surfaces. There’s no evidence that the virus is transmitted by food,” said Donald Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University. “Therefore the safest choice is going to be the one that avoids contact with the most people.”

Both takeout and delivery are lower in risk than eating out because you tend not to be around others for long periods of time.

Delivery, though, is slightly safer because of contactless delivery, which lets workers leave food at your door, said Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. Because the ordering and payment are done electronically, customers and workers never need to touch.

If the restaurant you’re ordering from doesn’t offer delivery, takeout is still a relatively safe option. But the proximity of other customers, waiting for their food, may pose a hazard.

“If you are going to go to all these steps of taking the sushi out of the packaging and washing your hands, make sure you don’t go to the ‘in’ place that has 20 people packed in the vestibule to do pickup,” said Elizabeth Carlton, an assistant professor of environmental health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Ask the restaurant staff to put the food down and walk away before you pick it up. Stand far apart from other patrons. And whether you choose takeout or delivery, pay in advance. You can do it electronically, which will keep both you and the staff safer.

How risky is the packaging?

Good news: Packaging has a low risk. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says surfaces contaminated with droplets of the virus can infect people, the agency notes that is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Even if an infected person did touch a package, the risk of transmission is slim, said John Williams, chief of pediatric diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh. “That person would have to contaminate their own hands (for example, wiping their nose), touch and contaminate the package, and then we would have to touch the package in the same place and then rub our nose or eyes,” Williams wrote in an email.

The virus would have to live on the packaging as it was transported from the restaurant to your home. The risk of it making there is “astonishingly low,” said Paula Cannon, a professor of immunology at Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

“People want me to say: ‘Yes, if you bring the takeout food in your house, place it on a wooden floor, decontaminate it with 10% bleach, leave it for 40 minutes,’” she said. Instead, she suggested that people save their wipes and bleach in case a family member falls ill.

Still, if you’re nervous, wipe down the packages with a disinfectant and recycle the bags. Wash your hands, then transfer the food to a plate.

What about utensils?

A lot of takeout food comes with disposable utensils. But you probably don’t need them if you’re eating in your own home.

“That’s another touch point that someone’s hands could be on,” Chapman said. “If I can eliminate that as much as possible, I am taking that very, very low risk even lower.”

What should I order?

Because the virus is not believed to be carried by food, you can order anything you like — sushi, pizza, salads.

“The risk lies on interacting with people, not on the type of food,” Olga Padilla-Zakour, director of the Cornell Food Venture Center at Cornell University, wrote in an email. “There is no difference,” she added, between raw and cooked food.

If you are still worried, warm the food. Heat kills most pathogens. The coronavirus thrives in wet conditions, and heat dries moisture. “And if you are in the 1% of extreme worriers, order pizza and zap it in the oven for 400 degrees,” Cannon said.

But cold foods or those with raw ingredients, like sushi, are just as safe. “I wouldn’t say that sushi is any riskier than a hamburger or fresh produce that I get at the grocery store,” Chapman said. “Food just isn’t something that we’re seeing as a transmission route.”

What should I be worried about?

Be concerned for the safety of workers. People get sick from contact with other people. So when you order, call the restaurant to ask specific questions about how the workers are protected. At minimum, ask if they are wearing personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves.

But you should also ask how workers are paid, said Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Ask if they getting sick pay, so they don’t have to work if they are ill.

Many restaurant workers are paid “sub-minimum wage,” just a few dollars an hour, on the assumption that the rest of their income will be covered by tips. But during the pandemic, Jayaraman said, restaurant tips are down almost 80%.

So ask if employees are being paid minimum wage, Jayaraman said. (And remember to tip.) You want to be sure they can afford to take sick time. “This is a moment when consumers have tremendous power to actually influence worker treatment because health and safety is on the top of everybody’s mind,” she said.

Just asking those questions may keep you, and workers, safer. You’ll be a more informed patron, and you’ll be indirectly helping the employees by letting managers know that their safety matters to you.

c.2020 The New York Times Company