As news and social media on the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the country, we’re seeing store shelves emptied of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfectants along with canned goods and pasta. As a registered dietitian, I have to admit I’m not unhappy to see that produce shelves are starting to look a bit sparse too. Why? Fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and kale, supply nutrients that help keep the body’s immune system working properly. While a healthy immune system cannot prevent anyone from getting the coronavirus, it can mount a better response to kill viruses like those that cause colds, flu and coronavirus. Nutrients in produce that strengthen the immune response range from vitamins C, E and folic acid (a B vitamin) to the mineral, selenium, and phytonutrients like beta-carotene, quercetin and lycopene.
The good news is, according to both the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority, there is no evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted through food. But it is still very important to use safe food handling practices when preparing fresh fruits and vegetables. This includes using soap and water to wash hands, cutting boards and other surfaces used to cut fresh produce. Then wash the produce thoroughly under running water without soap or detergent. Triple-washed lettuce should not be washed again. This can actually increase contamination.
While the COVID-19 virus is not spread through food, I think it’s important to understand that produce farmers regularly take measures to keep food safe. This past summer I had the opportunity to visit lettuce fields in California and saw first-hand a program called the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), which represents over 90 percent of the lettuce and leafy greens eaten in the U.S. The companies participating in the LGMA program are committed to producing safe lettuce for consumers to enjoy each and every day. Under the LGMA system, a set of strict safety practices exist for employees working on farms and in fields. These include:
- Bathroom and handwashing facilities must be present anytime harvest crews are working in lettuce fields.
- Toilets must be clean and always have water, soap, toilet paper and hand drying towels.
- Workers must wash hands before and after breaks or whenever they use the bathroom.
- LGMA member companies who grow leafy greens are required to train workers on the required practices, including how to properly wash their hands. The LGMA provides a hand-washing App that can be used for training purposes.
- People who are sick are not allowed to come into contact with lettuce and other leafy greens.
- No one is allowed to consume food, chew tobacco or spit near the fields.
- Harvest equipment and tools must be sanitized regularly.
- Each LGMA member company is visited by government officials an average of five times per year to verify these required practices are being followed.
- During on-farm visits, government auditors observe activities of work crews to make sure they understand and follow required hygiene practices. The auditors will test workers’ knowledge by speaking to them directly asking questions such as, “Did your employer check with you today to make sure you weren’t feeling ill before you began work?”
Since these products are perishable, there is no need to empty the store shelves, but be sure to stock up on plenty of fruits and veggies, including all kinds of lettuce and leafy greens, on your next trip to the supermarket. It’s a great idea to keep your immune system at its best not only during the current crisis but all year long.