Everyone needs to eat. That’s among the reasons that grocery stores remain open during the month of sheltering in place. But what precautions do you need to take while buying essentials and when you arrive home with them?
That’s something many folks have been asking, and scientific experts are working to provide the answers. It’s also important to note, though, that recommendations are constantly changing because what we know about COVID-19 is constantly being updated with new information.
Robson Machado, assistant professor and food scientist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, warned that the science is evolving on this strain of the coronavirus, so all tips should be taken with a grain of salt. Recommendations may change as scientists learn more about the disease.
“These are the questions everyone is asking, and very few will have a definite answer,” Machado said. “We just do not have enough scientific data for pinpoint answers. Keep in mind that this a subject that is being researched as we go, and answers could change over time.”
At the moment, scientists believe that transmission of coronavirus from food is unlikely. Unlike the bacteria that cause foodborne illness, coronavirus has not been found to multiply on food.
However, it is possible that the virus can get onto food if someone who is infected touches, coughs or sneezes on it. A research study of a different kind of coronavirus — not the one that causes COVID-19 — found that that virus could survive for several days on the surface of lettuce and strawberries. The novel coronavirus may still be able to spread on surfaces, including grocery carts, cans and freezer door handles.
Even so, keeping yourself safe when handling groceries doesn’t require intricate practices like those shown in a YouTube video from a family doctor that has more than 22 million views that involves leaving groceries outside for days. In fact, experts advise against that recommendation.
“Leaving perishable items outside for three days poses a more significant, well-known risk from other pathogens,” Machado said. “Even for non-perishable items, without scientific evidence to support such measures, this practice is not recommended.”
Here’s how to keep coronavirus out of your house when you make that necessary grocery run every two weeks or so.
Grocery shop smartly
The first step is to shop safely while you are at the grocery store itself. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension also released a comprehensive list of food safety resources for consumers in the age of COVID-19.
Machado and his University of Maine Cooperative Extension colleagues Jason Bolton, extension food safety specialist, and Kathleen Savoie, extension educator, recommend cleaning the handles of shopping carts or baskets with the sanitizing wipes provided by most larger grocery stores. If you can, wash hands before entering the store and immediately after leaving the store (the use of hand sanitizer is appropriate if you cannot wash your hands), and try not to touch your face until you have the opportunity to do so. Also, minimize the number of items that you touch while shopping.
“Avoiding handling produce that you are not going to buy is an excellent way to prevent foodborne diseases and likely help with the spread of COVID-19,” Machado said.
Additionally, stay at least 6 feet away from other shoppers. Go grocery shopping alone — leave your kids at home, if you can — and minimize trips, getting creative with the stuff you already have rather than going out shopping again.
To minimize the number of people that you might come in contact with, shop during off-peak hours. That timing may vary depending on the grocery store you frequent, but Hannaford spokesperson Eric Blom said the store’s busiest times are generally from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, Saturday mornings and early afternoon Sundays, as well as when stores first open daily. If you are a senior citizen, take advantage of early shopping hours when there are fewer people in the store.
If you have a meal delivery service or curbside pick up available, considering using that instead of shopping in person. However, some stores, including Hannaford, have suspended this service for the time being.
Also, consider making a paper list instead of using your phone. Phones are notoriously germy, and even if you clean them regularly, the extra precaution might be worthwhile.
Aside from making efforts to save money on groceries in this tough financial time, it behooves you to consider how you are paying for groceries in the store. If you have a contactless option like Apple Pay or a card with a tap-to-pay feature, that’s probably the best option. Keep your phone in your pocket until then.
The jury is out on how best to pay otherwise. Cash isn’t known for being especially clean. Paying with plastic often means touching a pin pad, though you can bring a sanitizing wipe for that. Self-checkout should reduce contact with a cashier, but it requires you to touch surfaces other people are also touching, so bring a sanitizing wipe for that, too.
“If one is doing everything they can to avoid contact with any surfaces, contactless-enabled cards and phones with near field communication are options,” Machado said. “When handling money, one can use hand sanitizer before getting to their cars or washing their hands when they get back home.”
No matter how you pay, be sure to wash your hands afterward.
Clean your reusable bags (if you’re allowed to use them)
Many grocery stores, including Hannaford, have suspended the use of reusable grocery bags for the time being to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, as of right now, there is no definitive evidence that plastic bags reduce the risk. In fact, a study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that the novel coronavirus can remain on plastic surfaces for up to three days.
“At first glance, it makes sense, right?” Machado said. “If someone is sick, or [has] someone in their home that is sick, and [bringing] a reusable bag that will be touching the cart, basket [and] cashier belt might increase the risk of contamination. However, without data to support that this is a viable way of transmission, we can’t say for sure.”
If you still are allowed to use them, though, make sure you are cleaning them when you get back from the store. According to cleaning expert Jolie Kerr on Vox, nylon and cotton grocery bags can be machine-washed in cold water and air-dried. Other reusable bags can be wiped down with a disinfecting wipe or spray and a paper towel.
Throw out excess packaging
Ok, it’s overkill to throw out excess packaging, but better safe than sorry. In a preliminary study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in mid-March found that the virus remained on plastic and stainless steel for up to three days, as well as for one day on cardboard. However, though it is possible that the virus, which the CDC says is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets, can be transmitted through contact with surfaces, there is no definitive evidence to support that.
“Without any evidence to date on transmission from surfaces, there are no specific handling recommendations,” Machado said. “[Frequently] washing your hands is the best practice.”
Wash your hands when you get home from the grocery store. Unpack your groceries, clean the surface you unloaded them on and then wash your hands again.
If you are particularly worried, you can wipe down glass jars, cans, plastic tubs and other containers with a disinfecting wipe, or transfer the contents to a new container, though as of right now, this is not considered necessary. In a statement on March 24, Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, noted that “there is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”
Does produce need to be sanitized?
Those recommendations to wash fruit and veggies with soap and water? Don’t follow them.
Ingesting soap can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which are the last things you want right now besides the coronavirus itself. If it makes you feel better, you can whip up a quick DIY produce wash for your raw produce, anyway. Cooking food is also thought to kill the virus.
Food safety experts at the University of Maine Cooperative extension say that, as of right now, there are no additional recommendations for cleaning produce.
“We suggest the same washing steps as before,” Machado said. “One thing to note is that soap, other detergents, or bleach should not be used to wash produce.”
Wash your hands every step of the way
This message may sound like a broken record at this point, but seriously: Washing your hands is one of the best ways that individuals can help prevent the spread of this virus. Wash your hands before you go grocery shopping, right after you come home and again after you unpack your produce.
Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus