For many Americans, grocery stores are one of the few places still open to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. As people try to limit exposure to the virus, some worry about the safest ways to handle their groceries.
Because of the way the coronavirus spreads, the biggest risk is actually being in the store itself; once you get your products and produce home, there’s less of a chance you’ll become infected from the packages themselves. But once you get home, do you really need to sanitize your groceries?
Here’s what the experts say about staying safe during — and after — your trip to the grocery store.
“Currently there is no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19,” according to the Food and Drug Administration. But the FDA also notes that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces and objects. It recommends following standard food-safety practices: clean, separate (keeping raw meat away from other foods), cook, and chill. That means washing your hands, cooking utensils, and surfaces. You should wash produce, but the FDA says washing poultry and eggs can actually spread contamination of bacteria like salmonella. When rinsing fruits and vegetables, you should only use water. Leftover soap can cause vomiting or diarrhea, Dr. Donald W. Schaffner, a food scientist at Rutgers University, told Modern Farmer. “Eating even a little bit of soap residue is not a good idea,” he said.
Wiping down other packaging, like boxes and containers, is fine but probably unnecessary, according to the Washington State Department of Health. Using disinfectants on any packaging is definitely not recommended, as ingesting bleach will make you ill.
Practicing the usual safety tips should help prevent the spread of many food-borne illnesses as well, which aren’t taking a vacation during the pandemic.
The main way the coronavirus spreads is thought to be person to person, via droplets from an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or breathes. If someone who’s contracted the virus sneezes — even if they don’t have a fever or other symptoms — you might inhale the droplets into your mouth or nose. In grocery stores, it can be difficult to keep six feet away from people in narrow aisles, especially with carts and baskets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending everyone wear homemade masks to help stop the spread of the virus, as asymptomatic people can still spread the virus.
Limiting the amount of time you’re in contact with people can both reduce your exposure to the coronavirus and help stop you from infecting others if you’re sick and don’t know it. The Washington State Department of Health recommends going to the store once a week or less frequently, you bring a list and shop “like you mean business” (i.e. no browsing), and that you go alone, if possible. Buying groceries online is one alternative, but it’s proving difficult to find a pickup and delivery slots.
If someone is sick and their expelled droplets do land on a surface, it is possible to transmit the virus to another person, if they touch the same spot then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. It’s a good reason to sanitize your hands if your store offers a dispenser right when you walk in. “That’s not to protect me,” Schaffner said. “That’s in case I have coronavirus on my hands, and it will protect everybody else in the grocery store.”
You’ll likely see store workers wiping down carts, baskets, and touchscreens, but you can wipe down handles as well. Your safest bet is not to touch your face. Even if you’re wearing gloves, those can become just as contaminated as your fingers. When you get home, you’ll want to wash your hands right away.
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