Can you get COVID-19 off a cereal box? Do veggies need to be bleached? Experts weigh in with current best practices.
By Rebecca Onion March 18, 20206:18 PM
In the past week, grocery shopping has gone from a somewhat burdensome weekly duty to an epidemiological, ethical, and psychological workout. Issues of scarcity and budgeting aside, is it even safe to bring new jars of pasta sauce and boxes of golden raisins into your house right now? Do you need to wash everything, wear gloves, and/or create a makeshift air lock where the Instacart delivery person can drop your bags? I’m not sure about you, but given new information about the novel coronavirus’s ability to stick on surfaces, my anxiety around anything entering my home is currently quite real.
I sent a deluge of paranoid grocery-related questions to two experts and got the following replies in return, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rebecca Onion: Is it better to get grocery delivery or to visit a store in person right now? What are the factors we might consider in each situation?
Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center: Delivery and in-person shopping both carry different risks (and benefits) for the shopper. Overall, delivery might be safer, as the delivery person can better control how the food is delivered and minimize contact with the recipient, and take precautions such as good hand hygiene. Grocery stores are a different story. Crowded stores would have a greater risk of infection, simply because of numbers of people and density. Risk can be greatly mitigated by spacing people apart to some extent, keeping surfaces clean (they have to, anyway), and remembering good hand hygiene after handling things or surfaces and before touching your face. This is the same general advice we all keep getting everywhere. However, “social distancing” is really hard to practice in many stores. (Consider going at off-peak hours when the store may be less crowded—but all your neighbors may be trying to do the same.)
The delivery and store personnel, of course, are at greater risk of infection. They come in contact (sometimes close contact) with many people each day, and when they’re on the road or in the street. One delivery person or grocery worker who becomes infected can unknowingly spread it to many others, strengthening the argument for encouraging paid sick leave so that people can stay home if they or a family member are sick. It’s good for everybody, as it prevents spread of infection to co-workers. Delivery workers may often be unable to do this, losing pay for time off, but grocery workers (especially if unionized) may have more latitude. [This post from Consumer Reports includes information on the paid sick leave policies of various grocery delivery services; this post from Eater offers a running list of such policies at major restaurant chains and grocery stores.]
Craig Hedberg, professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences: The goal of social distancing is to reduce the number of interactions you have with other people who could expose you to the coronavirus, or to avoid exposing someone else to the coronavirus that you may be carrying. If you have been ill, staying home until you have been free of symptoms for a week is important. Thus, it is better to have groceries delivered for you. This will better protect others in the community.
Similarly, avoiding busy times at the grocery store or having groceries delivered will reduce your potential exposure to coronavirus transmission. The value of this may depend on how much the coronavirus is circulating in your community, and of course it is important that the person delivering the groceries is healthy and practicing good hygiene.
With deliveries, we also want to make sure that food is handled and delivered safely to avoid creating a food safety hazard while trying to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. Avoiding cross-contamination from meat and poultry products to fresh produce is important, and so is temperature control—refrigerated or frozen foods should not sit out at warm temperatures for prolonged periods of time.
Should people who are going into stores be wearing gloves? Or simply taking hand sanitizer and using it periodically, resisting face-touching during the trip, and washing hands as soon as possible afterward?
Morse: Either is fine. Many stores now provide dispensers with hand sanitizers. The problem with gloves is that people may unthinkingly touch their face with their gloves, defeating the whole purpose, or contaminate their fingers when they take gloves off. The most important thing is not to touch your face unless you know your hands are clean. This often takes a surprising amount of conscious effort, to become aware of this habit and prevent it.
Hedberg: I don’t think gloves are necessary, and wearing gloves doesn’t change the need for proper hand-washing. Washing hands appropriately, and using hand sanitizers when hand-washing is not possible, is recommended. If you go out to buy groceries, washing hands when you get home is certainly important.
What about delivery handoffs? Should people try to have delivery personnel leave groceries without contact, if possible? Or is it OK for the delivery person to come into the house to drop bags?
Morse: I think [contact-free delivery] reduces risk and is a good idea when possible (for people who are ambulatory and therefore able to pick up the package or have someone in the home who can do it). It may seem impersonal at first, but is safer for everyone, and after all, we’re in the new “new normal,” for now.
Hedberg: Assuming the delivery person is healthy, this is a low-risk situation and can be managed to fit what works best for a given household. If it’s convenient to have a drop-off that doesn’t require a delivery person to enter the house, that would be great. If trying to do this creates a possible hazard for the delivery person, you, or your groceries, having the delivery person come into the house shouldn’t be a problem.
Is there any danger of contamination of food before it gets into the store—at a packing plant, for example? Or is possible contamination only going to happen at the grocery store?
Morse: Given the long history and continuing occurrence of the familiar foodborne diseases, I’d be more concerned about that possibility [than about the coronavirus]. That’s why we wash our salad greens carefully, and many other things. Good conventional food handling is really what is most applicable, for all pathogens. Conceivably, in the store, someone could get virus on a box (achoo!), and the virus is fairly stable, so it could be at least theoretically possible to get infected that way. We don’t have data on this, and I suspect it seems far-fetched. But that’s where good “hand hygiene” comes in, as mentioned above.
Hedberg: The primary risk we are worried about is limiting potential respiratory transmission of the coronavirus. Thus, contamination of foods at a packing plant or in transportation is not a great concern. Good food handling practices designed to provide for food safety should always be followed. There are no special concerns for the coronavirus.
What do we know about best practices for cleaning the outsides of individual items, once they are in the house and before they are put away? Should people be cleaning incoming cans and jars and bottles with soap and water? What about porous items, like pasta boxes—is there any way to clean those? What about produce? Should anyone be considering using bleach or other cleaning agents on these items? (That’s a bad idea for food, right? Just confirming!)
Morse: We don’t have any real data on this. I think that special measures aren’t really necessary. We should be very careful about things like washing produce before use, for the conventional reasons. No different now, and I’d expect the coronavirus to be the least of the risks.
Hedberg: As I noted above, the primary concern is preventing respiratory transmission of the coronavirus. There is no identified need to try to decontaminate individual items brought into the home. Good food handling practices and food safety measures needed to prevent foodborne disease transmission should be sufficient to eliminate any concern about coronaviruses. People should not apply cleaning products or sanitizers directly to fresh produce or ready-to-eat foods.
What about containers—the bags and boxes that get the groceries from the store to your house? Should people bring their own reusable bags from home—or, in this case, resist that routine and instead get disposable plastic, which seems less porous?
Morse: In some cases, we may not have a choice, as a new New York law [bans certain] disposable plastic [bags] anyway, as do a number of other jurisdictions already. I doubt it’s going to be a problem. If you’re really worried, you can always wipe down the bag with mild detergent or a disinfecting wipe, but that shouldn’t be necessary unless the bag gets some unexpected exposure to contaminated material.
Unpacking cartons or boxes may be a different matter. You might want to wash your hands after opening the box, just in case there’s a chance of contaminating the contents. But even that may not really be necessary—we don’t know.
Hedberg: This is not a great concern. After handling products being brought into the home, wash your hands.
Once you’ve got all the groceries in your cabinets, freezer, and fridge, do you need to wipe down your counters (where the bags and bottles just were) with something that contains disinfectant? I assume you wash your hands after doing the putting away, but do you just use soap and water or something more?
Morse: It’s always a good idea to clean surfaces when they’ve been used. It may not be necessary, but if you plan to use the counter for other purposes, it’s a good habit. Almost any household cleanser or disinfectant will do—you really don’t need anything special.
And, yes, wash your hands afterward. Good old soap and water is fine and is really all you need. The important thing is to do it thoroughly (the CDC and many health departments actually have videos or infographics): Wet your hands, make sure you cover all parts of your hands as you use the soap, and rinse thoroughly for at least 20 seconds (20 seconds is somewhat arbitrary but has worked well in practice).
In general, use common sense, but there’s no need to be obsessive. Enjoy your meals!
Hedberg: As above, wash your hands after putting things away and before moving on to other tasks. This is always appropriate, and maybe we can develop a new culture of hand-washing.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next.