Grocery shopping in the age of coronavirus remains an anxiety-inducing but essential task. National social distancing guidelines have been extended through the end of April, and two-thirds of Americans are under local stay-at-home orders. At some point, we'll all need to replenish our kitchens.
This inevitably leads to a frenzy of questions and worries. How do you venture to the grocery store without putting yourself and others at risk? Can you get sick if someone with the virus coughs near produce that you then pick up? Should you take extra steps to sanitize food packages? How do you make sure you don’t bring the virus home with you?
The good news is that, in general, experts say you’ll stay safe if you follow the same directives we’ve heard over and over again: maintain social distancing, wash your hands as often as possible, and don’t touch your face.
Staying Safe in the Grocery Store
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control has been consistent that COVID-19, the disease that causes coronavirus, is spread by direct person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets. This means that currently, being around other people is the biggest known risk of going to the grocery store.
“The key is really limiting the amount of people that we're around right now,” says Erin DiCaprio, a specialist in the food science department at University of California, Davis, who studies foodborne viruses. “I've adjusted the times that I'm going to the grocery store to avoid crowds as much as possible. Certainly if you can get groceries delivered or do the curbside pickup, that's a great way to minimize your exposure to other people.”
Here are some additional tips experts say can mitigate risk:
- Plan ahead so you can make fewer trips to the grocery store, rather than going multiple times a week.
- Choose grocery stores that are spacious enough to allow for social distancing of at least six feet between customers, or are enforcing social distancing by letting only a certain number of customers in at a time.
- Bring sanitizing wipes with you to the grocery store and wipe down cart and basket handles.
- Keep hand sanitizer with you whenever you don't have access to soap and water.
- Don’t touch items unnecessarily—decide what you’re getting and commit before picking it up.
- Don’t put unpackaged produce directly in the cart; either bring your own reusable washable produce bags or use the plastic bags provided by the store.
- Sanitize your credit card after paying.
Do You Need to Sanitize Food Packaging?
According to the CDC, “...currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging.” Experts for the CDC do acknowledge that “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
There’s no evidence that ingesting the virus will lead to a coronavirus infection, as coronaviruses do not thrive in the digestive system, only the respiratory system, according to the CDC. So if someone coughed or sneezed on your food, you wouldn't catch coronavirus from eating it. But if you touch the item shortly after they coughed or sneezed on it, and then touch your face without washing your hands, there is a chance you can get infected.
Of course, even this slim possibility can be nerve-wracking, particularly after a National Institutes of Health study found that coronavirus could be detected on cardboard for up to 24 hours and plastic and stainless steel for two to three days.
While that may seem like an eternity in the midst of a pandemic, for perspective, DiCaprio says, “compared to the noroviruses and hepatitis A virus that I’ve worked with, which survive for weeks to months on surfaces, coronavirus doesn't seem extremely stable on surfaces.” This echoes the CDC, which states that “because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.”
Further, says DiCaprio, “It's important to consider that the study was done under optimized conditions where the researchers applied a significant amount of virus to surfaces, then looked at how long it takes for them to get to a non-detectable level. It’s not indicative of real-world conditions.”
A recent video from a Michigan physician shows him treating grocery packages with the “sterile technique” that medical professionals use for preventing the spread of germs. As part of the process, he suggests wiping down all packaging such as plastic-wrapped produce, canned goods, chip bags, and milk jugs with disinfectant-soaked paper towels. While this will kill the virus and you can certainly do it for peace of mind, it’s time-consuming, and experts don’t think it’s necessary. Instead, it’s more important to “wash your hands as much as humanly possible” before and after handling packages, says DiCaprio, as well as consistently sanitizing surfaces like countertops, door knobs, and light switches.
How Should You Handle Produce?
That being said, DiCaprio advises that people should follow the standard FDA and CDC food safety guidelines for washing produce. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap, then use running water and a vegetable scrub brush (or your clean hands) to thoroughly clean produce. You don’t need any additional cleansers — in fact, it’s not advisable since cleansing agents aren’t meant for human consumption. Discard or wash any bags used for the produce, and store the cleaned produce directly in your fridge. If you’re buying bagged salad that’s already triple-washed, you don’t need to re-wash it, but you can empty the contents into a container you have at home and discard the bag.
“If you have raw produce and you are still concerned that it might be coming in with some virus, you could let it sit around in your house a couple of days prior to consumption” in order to let the virus die off, DiCaprio says. Cooking any ingredients at 140 F will also neutralize the virus, based on studies done with previous coronavirus strains.
How to Deal With Delivery Or Takeout
Many restaurants are still preparing food for delivery or takeout. And with a few precautions, you can stay safe and support local restaurants that need your business now more than ever.
- Use contact-free delivery: ask the driver to leave your food at your door.
- Use gloves to get your delivery or takeout, or be sure to wash your hands after handling the package.
- Put your food on a plate and discard any packaging.
- Use your own utensils.
- Re-warm the food to kill any germs in the food itself.
- Sanitize any surfaces on which you placed the delivery package.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food safety and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Updated May 11, 2020.
US National Institutes of Health. New coronavirus stable for hours on surfaces. March 17, 2020.