The United States remains a land of plenty even in the era of coronavirus, U.S. federal health officials said Thursday.
State-by-state lockdowns may have created a rush on certain items in grocery stores — toilet paper, dry yeast, flour, rice, dried beans — but the food supply chains remain strong and shelves should soon be restocked, according to Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"What we've just experienced is an artificial rush in sudden demand. I call it the equivalent of having seven Thanksgiving holidays all in one weekend," Yiannas said during a Thursday media briefing.
The U.S. food supply system relies on "just-in-time inventory, and they weren't prepared for this unexpected rush in demand," he continued.
Yiannas urged people to stick to their regular buying patterns when visiting the grocery store.
"There's no need to hoard," Yiannas said. "They should buy what they normally buy, a week or two of groceries, and leave some for others."
"Speaking personally, I've had the same experience I suspect some of you have had. You've gone to your grocery store and you've seen some shelves empty," Yiannas said. "But based on our communication with the industry, we understand this is largely an issue of unprecedented demand, not a lack of capacity to produce, process or deliver foods. Manufacturers and retailers alike are working around the clock to replenish shelves."
Major U.S. agencies like the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security are all collaborating to monitor the food supply chain and keep food flowing to restaurant kitchens and grocery shelves, Yiannas said.
For example, last week they issued temporary guidance that allows foods destined for restaurants to be diverted to grocery stories, even if the products don't have the proper labeling, like Nutrition Facts boxes, Yiannas said.
Delivery and pickup services are only a fraction of restaurants' normal traffic, and ingredients destined for those businesses is "food we certainly don't want to go to waste," Yiannas said.
He added that people do not have to worry about contracting COVID-19 from their food.
"There is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19," Yiannas said. "This is not a foodborne gastrointestinal virus like norovirus or hepatitis."
Respiratory viruses like the novel coronavirus tend to attach to cells in the lungs, but can't survive acid in the stomach like foodborne pathogens, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's why they mainly spread when you inhale respiratory droplets from an infected person who coughs or sneezes, or by clinging to your hands and then entering the body through your nose, mouth or eyes.
"Ingestion is not a route of transmission," Yiannas said. "There is no evidence that it's transmitted by food."
While the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted through contact with a contaminated surface, Yiannas said there's low risk of contracting the disease by handling food packaging.
"I personally do not sanitize the exterior of food packages when I bring them into my home, remembering there's no evidence that food packaging is a route of transmission," Yiannas said. "This is a respiratory virus."
Worried people can use disinfectant wipes on food products entering their home, but Yiannas said frequent hand-washing is probably a better way to prevent disease spread.