​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Tetra Pak, COVID-19 & Food Safety

COVID-19: Should I wash food cartons after bringing them home from shopping?

Martin Lappann, Microbiology Manager, Tetra Pak

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed our world.  Some of the changes have been obvious – with lockdowns, quarantines and, most significantly, creating human suffering.

Other changes have been less dramatic, but transformed our lives nonetheless. With restaurants in many countries closed for health and safety reasons, home cooking has become the default meal option. People's fridges and pantries are now better stocked than usual - either because we have been asked to make fewer shopping trips or because we store that little bit extra, just to make sure we don't run out of food basics.

Around the world, consumer demand for what our industry calls 'shelf stable' foods have soared. These are food products that can be stored for an extended period without refrigeration. Tetra Pak is a global leader in providing the packaging, and the equipment to process and the package these foods – from UHT milk, juice and chopped tomatoes to soups and many similar products.

This pandemic, however, has been accompanied by an infodemic; as fake news distracts from the efforts of scientists to communicate what they have learned about this new virus so far.

Some people also worry whether they can catch the virus while they are shopping. One question that we have been asked is whether one can get infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus sticking on the surface or being inside a Tetra Pak carton.

We can conclude: SARS-CoV-2 infections from Tetra Pak carton surfaces or products is extremely unlikely. Let me explain why.

For starters, we have to understand how virus infections occur. Viruses only replicate in the infected human (or animal) host. In contrast, bacteria or mould can grow in lots of places, as long as the conditions are right.

The virus is then released from its host by coughing or sneezing or touching an object. Subsequent infections resulting from picking the virus from a contaminated surface is very unlikely because a virus infection only arise from a certain high number of infectious virus particles (minimum infectious dose). This number of virus particles is difficult to pick from a contaminated surface because the SARS-CoV-2 virus will quickly inactivate on surfaces outside the host.

The remaining negligible risk to catch the corona virus while shopping can be controlled by standard hygienic procedures like frequent handwashing and avoiding touching mouth, nose, and eyes as recommended by national and international health authorities

Both the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation state that the risk of infection with the corona virus arising from food products, food packaging, or bags is thought to be very low. Consequently, no cases of COVID-19 infection have been confirmed where infection was suspected to have occurred by touching food, food packaging, or shopping bags.

That's especially true for food in Tetra Pak's 'aseptic' cartons, with a packaging process that takes place in a closed, sterile environment. Everything is sterilised in three steps:  the equipment before production; then the liquid food product itself; and finally the surface of the packaging material.

Viruses cannot survive this sterilisation process - even less so than bacteria. And once in a sterile Tetra Pak package, your food is protected from microbes and viruses, air, light and leakage.

Once on the store shelves, the food product stays safe because the virus cannot survive for long on any surfaces. There is no known case described in scientific literature that indicates a person caught a Coronavirus from the surface of a food package.

Therefore, washing a carton is not necessary to reduce risk. Instead, if you wash the carton, then any water that might remain around the seals of the package could create unintended circumstances that enable moulds to grow on the surface, that might then spread to surrounding goods.. The presence of moulds in a household environment can create allergic reactions, and mould contaminated food should not be consumed due to possible food poisoning. In other words: while trying to dodge a totally negligible risk, you might create a health risk because of mould.  Without washing, a Tetra Pak container will remain safe for the duration of the indicated storage period for the food inside.

Wherever we operate we adhere to internationally leading regulatory standards, complying with EU and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. Even when production takes place outside these jurisdictions, we comply with EU and US requirements as well as local regulations.

For more than 60 years, we have gained unique knowledge and experience in safe food processing and packaging. Right now, this is really helping us to deliver on our brand promise: to protect what's good.​

Martin Lappann