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Has COVID-19 ruined birthday candles? One expert thinks so

TORONTO — While some experts say COVID-19 does not spread easily through meals, a professor of food safety believes it could still spark the end of birthday cakes with candles. Paul Dawson, a professor in Food Systems and Safety at Clemson University in South Carolina, believes that COVID-19 should make people reconsider whether they want…

TORONTO —
While some experts say COVID-19 does not spread easily through meals, a professor of food safety believes it could still spark the end of birthday cakes with candles.

Paul Dawson, a professor in Food Systems and Safety at Clemson University in South Carolina, believes that COVID-19 should make people reconsider whether they want to celebrate their birthday by blowing candles and sharing the cake with loved ones.

“I kind of think (COVID-19) might be the end of the birthday tradition of having a big birthday cake and multiple candles and blowing around it,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

“If you’re having a birthday party and there’s one person blowing on there — who may or may not be sick — and then you have someone who is immunocompromised eating the cake, that’s asking for trouble.”

In 2017, Dawson co-authored a study in the Journal of Food Research, where they found that cakes with blown-out candles had upwards of 1,400 per cent more bacteria on them than cakes that hadn’t been blown on — although to be clear, COVID-19 is a virus.

Dawson and his team covered several fake cakes with icing and had subjects eat a slice of pizza — to simulate a traditional birthday party — and then blow out the candles on some of the cakes.

“Clearly blowing out birthday candles is going to deposit oral, not just bacteria, but whatever’s being involved in the mouth,” he said.

Back in 2017, Dawson said he wasn’t concerned about the health impacts of eating a cake with blown-out candles, due in part to the amount of other activities humans regularly participate in that are more effective in spreading germs, such as kissing or sharing food.  

He is now reconsidering how he views eating these cakes in the COVID-19 era.

“I would certainly have probably changed my statement. I wouldn’t say it’s not a concern,” he said.

While some experts have indicated that COVID-19 does not spread easily through food, Dawson argues this does not extend to food that has been directly blown on before eating.

“I’ve kind of gotten in friendly arguments with some people saying, ‘Well, if someone blows on your food just before you eat it, then you’re likely going get exposed to it,’ and this is the example of that,” he said.

Dawson said there are more sanitary alternatives to the tradition, including waving at the flames, using a hair dryer or giving out individual cupcakes with a single candle to party participants. Sparklers can also be an option.

OTHER FOOD NORMS CAN ALSO BE UNSANITARY 

Dawson said there are other food practises that should be reconsidered in the COVID-19 era.

In other studies he’s been a part of, Dawson said tongs at salad bars and double-dipping have shown to spread bacteria.

“We found you are depositing oral bacteria back in the common bowl, every time you (double dip),” he said. “If you’re at a party and multiple people are doing that multiple times, it’s going to build up.”

“If someone’s sensitive — immunocompromised — that’s going to be the population that’s going to be at risk.”

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