Do You Have to Disinfect Groceries? Here's What You Need to Know About Shopping and Coronavirus
Even while following social distancing recommendations to a T—staying six feet away from others at all times, not closely interacting with anyone outside of those who live with you—there will still come a time when you have to venture out into the world during this coronavirus pandemic: Most likely for a trip to grab groceries.
Right now, a trip to the supermarket or corner store is one of the biggest stressors for those practicing social distancing. While grocery delivery services are available, they may not be the best option for everyone. And whenever you or someone you live with ventures outside to grab (much needed!) supplies, there's a risk of exposure to coronavirus, whether it's through an infected person or a contaminated surface.
The truth is: What we know about coronavirus is changing and evolving daily; but with social distancing recommendations in place until the end of April, you're going to to have to stock up on food and other supplies at some point. Here's what infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists want you to know for when that time comes—including what to do before, during, and after your grocery store visit.
What to do before you go grocery shopping:
First and foremost, Jaimie Meyer, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease doctor, tells Health that the most important question you need to ask yourself is if you really need to physically go to the store. After all, the less exposure to people, the better. “Consider whether online ordering and delivery or curbside pickup might be an option,” she says.
If you can't use those services, proper planning is key according to Dr. Meyer. That means making a grocery store list, taking it with you, and only getting what you need to avoid any lingering or browsing. It's also wise to shop during off-hours. "Try to go at a time that is less crowded, like first thing in the morning or late in the evening, so that you can keep your distance from other shoppers," says Dr. Meyer.
Along with your shopping list, it's also a good idea to pack and carry with you a coronavirus kit of sorts, including a bleach wipe or two in a baggie to wipe down cart or basket handles, your own pen to sign checks or credit card receipts, and hand sanitizer.
It's also important to note that, while the recommendations surrounding wearing masks for the general healthy public are unclear, you should wear one if your local government has specifically suggested so. But if masks haven't been recommended to you by your local officials (and until they are a national recommendation), Dr. Meyer doesn't believe they're necessary if you stick to the basic guidelines suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, like avoiding touching your face, keeping a six-foot distance between yourself and others, and washing your hands or using hand sanitizer after touching any object or person.
The same goes for gloves, says Dr. Meyer. "There is no recommendation for wearing gloves for the general public and in fact, we prefer that people do not buy gloves for grocery shopping because it could be taking this precious resource [personal protective equipment] away from people who really need it: the healthcare workers on the front line of patient care," she says.
“Wearing gloves doesn’t change anything if the item you’re touching is contaminated,” adds Lauren Bryan, RN, infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “COVID-19 does not infect via contaminated hands–it has to get into your body via an orifice like your eyes, nose or mouth. Gloves can become contaminated just like your hands can, [so] do not touch your face with gloves on.” That means even if you do wear gloves, you still must practice proper hand hygiene after removing them.
People who are older or have other underlying medical conditions—underlying heart disease, lung disease, liver disease, kidney disease, or weakened immune systems—are at higher risk of having COVID-19 related complications and severe disease if they do become infected. Therefore, Dr. Meyer explains they should take extra care to reduce the chance that they will be exposed and become infected. “If your local grocery store offers special hours when the store is less crowded for people who are high-risk, by all means take advantage if you are high-risk,” she encourages.
Most important of all, don’t leave the house if you are the least bit sick. “If you’re not feeling well, please stay home if you can and ask a generous roommate/neighbor/friend to drop groceries off for you,” reminds Dr. Meyer.
What to do while you're at the store:
Better said than done, but try not to stress out too much. While a March 17 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus could live for two to three days on plastic and stainless steel and up to 24 hours on cardboard, government health organizations unanimously claim that there is little to no risk that you will get sick from food or food packaging. It's also important to keep in mind that just because the virus can exist on those surfaces, it doesn't necessarily mean it can spread that way. "While the SARS-CoV-2 virus can theoretically live on inanimate surfaces for very long periods, this does not mean that it is transmitted from person to person this way," says Dr. Meyer. "The primary mode of transmission is still person to person contact via droplets."
In a recent statement on the Food and Drug Administration’s website, Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, ensured that the food chain “remains safe for both people and animals” adding that there is “no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.” The United States Department of Agriculture also says food and food packaging is safe, and have not been associated with any reports of COVID-19 illnesses.
Still, Dr. Meyer still encourages taking precautions at the store—not because of the food itself, but because of your interactions with other people, since person-to-person contact through infected droplets (produced by coughing, sneezing, or speaking) is the primary route of infection for coronavirus.
Make sure to wipe down the handle of your cart or basket with a disinfecting wipe (if your store doesn't provide any, this is where your coronavirus kit comes in handy). And keep practicing social distancing—especially in an enclosed space like a grocery store. "If an aisle is crowded, skip it and come back to it when there are less people," says Bryan.
And because you'll likely be coming into contact with highly-touched surfaces—freezer doors, credit card machines—try covering your hand with your sleeve. “Be aware to not touch your face, as most of us do it at least 20 times an hour without even thinking” says Bryan.
When checking out, Dr. Meyer believes it may be safer to use a self-checkout machine "because it's easier to maintain that six feet of social distancing from other people." That said, because self-checkouts often use highly-trafficked touch pads, it's wise to wipe that down with a disinfecting wipe too, or at least use your sleeve to press buttons. If you do have to interact with a store clerk, try to stand as far away as possible. "No matter which lane you choose, wash your hands after you've finished shopping," says Dr. Meyer.
What to do when you get home:
As soon as you walk out of the store, use hand sanitizer if you have it, Dr. Meyer urges. “Then when you return home, wash your hands well with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.”
While it's not necessary, Bryan says if you're extra cautious, you can wipe down any inedible containers (plastic packaging, cereal boxes) with a disinfectant wipe, but it's not necessary to transfer everything to another container, unless that's your standard practice already. You can also wash fruits and vegetables (with friction) under running water, but definitely don't use cleaning products on anything you will actually consume. "Please don't scrub your pears with Lysol," pleads Dr. Meyer. "If you do, there's a higher chance of getting sick from ingesting [chemicals] rather than from COVID-19."
After unpacking all of your groceries and putting everything away, Dr. Meyer suggests cleaning and disinfecting your countertops with disinfecting wipes or bleach-containing products, “as we all should be doing at least a few times a day anyways.” The FDA also says that if you are concerned about contamination of food or food packaging, “wash your hands after handling food packaging, after removing food from the packaging, before you prepare food for eating and before you eat"—basically just a reminder of general food safety practices.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter