With the number of cases of influenza A H1N1 (human swine flu) rising, it is natural for people to become worried about the safety of day-to-day activities. Anxieties about the safety of the food supply have come to the fore. Is pork safe to eat? Could foods be contaminated by infected farm workers or food handlers?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), influenza viruses are not known to spread through eating food. For instance, while the H1N1 virus affects pigs, it cannot be spread by eating safely-handled, thoroughly-cooked pork. No changes to cooking time or temperature have been advised.

Just like other forms of influenza, H1N1 spreads when someone inhales the germs that fly into the air after the cough or sneeze of an infected person or by touching surfaces contaminated with the germs and then touching one's mouth, nose, or eyes.

And just as with the seasonal flu, an infected food handler could possibly spread the virus to people or surfaces in their environment. But that virus could only then infect someone else if they directly inhale the germs or touch their nose, mouth, or eyes.

Through common sense, the modest risk that any flu poses to our food supply can be easily avoided:

  • Anyone who handles food - from a person cooking at home to farm workers to chefs to wait staff at restaurants - must follow safe food-handling guidelines. These include frequent hand-washing, sticking to cooking times and temperatures, and proper scrubbing and washing of fresh produce. A flu virus can live on surfaces and infect others for 2 to 8 hours after being deposited on the surface, so there is little chance that fruits and vegetables would carry an infection risk all the way to the market.
  • The CDC recommends that any food service worker be advised to stay home from work if they experience flu-like symptoms. Employers bear the responsibility to keep a hygienic workplace and to alert their workers to any potential risks.

Amy Toffelmire