As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many of us are trying to navigate how to safely venture out and shop for groceries, bring food into our homes, and prepare meals. To that end, some of us are having our groceries and meals delivered or picked up as takeout. But how do we know that we’re making changes in a safe manner? Even though there is no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) by food, we may still have questions about modifying our shopping behaviors as we adjust to the “new normal.” Let’s dig into some food-safety best practices and shed light on how to properly shop and handle food during the coronavirus pandemic.
What are some safety measures I can take while I shop for groceries?
There are a few effective and (hopefully uncomplicated) measures we can all take to practice caution and while acquiring our groceries.
- Shop when there are fewer people around to support social distancing. It’s best to try to minimize contact with other people and to avoid crowds. When at all possible, shoppers should avoid popular grocery stores during peak hours (after work and on weekends) and prevent close contact (within six feet) with others while in stores. Using online grocery shopping apps and grocery delivery services or using a curbside pick-up option when available are also good ideas. If these options are not available, try to shop in smaller and less crowded markets during off-peak times.
Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators, but they can assist in stopping the spread of virus from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people to others.
- Remember the importance of clean hands and not touching your face. Remember to keep your hands as clean as possible and avoid touching your face while food shopping. Of course, touching some surfaces will be impossible to avoid, but not touching your face will help reduce germ transfer from a surface to your skin, and vice versa. Many stores have hand sanitizer at the front doors and throughout the store so that shoppers can clean their hands frequently; you can also bring your own to use while shopping. Contrary to some reports, wearing gloves will not protect you from the virus per se—the virus does not penetrate unbroken skin—although wearing gloves may protect your skin from being scratched or injured and therefore becoming potentially susceptible.
Once home, everyone should wash their hands. The CDC advises that proper handwashing includes scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds with water (cold or warm) and soap to eliminate all germs.
Are my groceries unsafe due to shoppers potentially transferring the coronavirus to products?
Health authorities affirm that there is no evidence that food or food packaging is causing the spread of coronavirus. Because the coronavirus has relatively poor survivability on surfaces (less than three days), there is a low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, and frozen temperatures. Still, it’s important to wash or sanitize your hands after handling packages, since research has found that the coronavirus can survive up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel after contact. Per the CDC, a primary line of defense from contracting the virus in public is keeping your hands clean and avoiding touching your face.
Should I wipe my groceries down with cleaning products to disinfect them, or leave them outside for three days to eliminate any live virus that could be on the surface?
It is not advisable to try to sanitize food packages before opening them, because doing so may transfer chemical residues to your food. If cleaning products are ingested, even in small amounts, they can make you sick. It’s also important not to leave food outside your house and away from proper storage. Improper food storage might lead to food spoilage and foodborne illness, and perhaps attract unwanted pests to your home.
For fresh produce, wash each product thoroughly upon arriving home. Thoroughly washing each fruit or vegetable under running water works best to clean produce properly. We do know that coronavirus is also sensitive to heat, so cooking produce to safe minimum temperatures (when appropriate) will also help eliminate any live virus.
For canned goods, rinse the top of the cans with water before using. Be sure not to get other pantry items wet with water from the cans when storing those other products. These and all other packaged foods should be stored properly in your kitchen. Wash your hands when you are done handling pantry packages and before you eat.
Another good habit is to keep kitchens as clean as possible; this includes disinfecting counter tops, handles (refrigerator doors, cabinet handles, pantry handles, etc.), knobs, refrigerator shelves, and other areas that come into contact with food. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a great list of effective household disinfectants that can be used against coronavirus.
Is getting groceries or restaurant food delivered safe?
Having food and meals delivered will minimize person-to-person contact, which is helpful for decreasing germ and sickness transfer. Restaurants are practicing food-handling hygiene protocols to avoid transferring germs such as the coronavirus year-round. These practices include requiring employees not to report to work while sick, to keep hands clean while handling food, to wear protective gear while handling food (aprons, gloves, hairnets, etc.) and to keep all surfaces that contact food clean.
Many restaurants, stores and delivery services have ramped up these protocols to further combat COVID-19. However, to cut down on risk even more, one of the most important habits for people to practice is to keep their hands clean after handling delivered food items. This helps to prevent germ transfer (of any kind) from one person to another. After you get your groceries properly stored, wash your hands. Alternatively, if you get your meals delivered, unbag and unwrap your food and then wash your hands before you begin eating (with clean dinnerware and flatware, of course).
Are stores having a shortage of food and other shelf items because national supplies are low?
It’s important to note that food production suppliers and companies are not reporting any shortage of food supplies across the country—so while people grocery shop, it’s not necessary to hoard food or other items. Food companies are working diligently to secure their supply chain and are collaborating with their partners to be able to support public needs in the coming weeks and months of the crisis. If you are going to stores and are seeing empty shelves it is not because products in the supply chain are low—it’s because other shoppers are buying them in extreme excess.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has stated that it is monitoring the food supply situation closely in collaboration with federal and state partners. The agency has also enacted measures to assist in government-wide efforts to ensure all Americans have access to food.
Dealing with food shopping during a pandemic can be difficult and is causing many of us to examine how to best employ personal food hygiene habits. We hope this information helps you stay on track for developing healthy and safe meals now and on the other side of these “pandemic days.”