How to Safely Handle Your Groceries During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Put down the bleach for one sec.
Toby Amidor, R.D., is a registered dietitian and a food safety expert. She has taught food safety at The Art Institute of New York City culinary school since 1999 and at Teachers College, Columbia University for a decade.
There's been a lot of conflicting advice circulating regarding many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic—including how to safely handle your food. Case in point: I've seen folks washing their produce in detergent, bleach, soap, and even rinsing it in vinegar. (Related: Does Vinegar Kill Viruses?)
But is all this necessary to ensure the safety of your food? Whether you shop at your grocery store or have deliveries delivered, here are guidelines you should follow.
How Does the Coronavirus Spread?
The good news: Coronavirus is not known to be transmitted or carried by food or food packaging at this time, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Food Manufacturer's Institute (FMI). The virus is unlike foodborne gastrointestinal (GI) viruses like norovirus (aka the "cruise ship" virus) and hepatitis A, which do make people sick through contaminated food.
The novel coronavirus is spread mainly from person to person. This can happen when people are in close contact with one another (within about six feet), and through respiratory droplets that are released when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These respiratory droplets can land in the mouths, eyes, or noses or people who are nearby or inhaled into the lungs. It's also possible to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes but this is not thought to be the main way this virus is spread, according to FMI. As of right now, the exact time that COVID-19 can stay alive on surfaces is still being researched, but if it's like other strains of coronavirus, it can survive for a few hours up to a few days, according to The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC). And there's currently no indication that food packaging material has a significant connection to virus transmission, according to FMI.
That said, even if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn't consider COVID-19 to be a foodborne illness, similar actions that prevent foodborne illness can be taken to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
How to Handle Groceries During Coronavirus
There have been a lot of mixed messages swirling around the internet about how groceries should be handled, including some potentially dangerous recommendations. Here are the safety guidelines to follow when at the store and once you get home.
At the Store:
- Stay home if you're sick: If you're showing any symptoms of coronavirus or another illness or caring for someone who is sick, then stay home. Ask a friend or neighbor to go food shopping for you, order online, or see if your local market delivers.
- Buy what you need: There are no nationwide shortages on food, according to the FDA. That said, you may find that certain foods at your supermarket are temporarily low before they can restock. Food production and manufacturing are done throughout the country and, currently, there are no major disruptions reported in the supply chain. The FDA is closely monitoring our food supply chain by being in regular contact with food manufacturers and grocery stores. As such, there's no need to stockpile food for months; only purchase enough food for a week or two. Fresh produce and dairy tend to last shorter periods of time, so compliment them with frozen and canned produce and shelf-stable milk. (See: The Best Staple Foods to Keep In Your Kitchen At All Times)
- Keep a safe distance: Go to the grocery store when there are fewer people in the store and keep six feet away from other shoppers and store clerks.
- Sanitize shopping carts: Many stores provide sanitizing wipes as you enter the store (or you can bring your own). Use them immediately to wipe down the handles of the cart before using it.
- Sanitize hands before handing produce: Consider using hand sanitizer before and after selecting produce items and avoid touching multiple produce items when making selections, says the FMI.
- Make wise decisions when choosing produce: Choose produce that's not bruised or damaged, according to the FDA. When buying pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce (think: baby spinach), choose only those that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice. When you're packing fresh fruit and vegetables at the checkout counter, keep them in a separate bag from raw meat, poultry, and seafood. (These recs stand even when COVID-19 isn't a concern.)
- Sanitize hands after paying: Whether you're using the credit card machine or using self-checkout, both get touched a lot by human hands. Although this is an area that local retailers are cleaning more frequently, it's not a bad idea to sanitize your hands after touching it.
- Minimize bringing objects and purses into stores: The fewer items that come into contact with humans in public areas, the better. That means you should minimize touching your phone (consider writing your shopping list on an old-fashioned piece of paper), and only bring essential items into the store only essential items (like your credit card, shopping list, and keys). Sanitize everything before heading home.
For Home Deliveries:
If you ordered your food online for delivery or your local market delivers, here are a few guidelines to follow. (Related: Is the Food In Meal Kit Delivery Services Actually Safe to Eat?)
- Ask for curbside drop off: In order to avoid human interaction, ask the delivery person to leave the groceries outside your front door or other location of your choosing outside of your house.
- Use your own pen: If you must sign for the delivery (though many places have forgone this step), then make sure to use your own pen and have the delivery person leave the slip on the packages and not hand it to you.
- Tip your delivery people. Remember, delivery folks are at the front lines delivering to many people (some who may not be able to leave their homes) so don't forget to tip them. You can often ask to leave the tip on the credit card when you pay for the groceries upfront—but you can also leave cash in an envelope outside, or drop it on your doorstep when you see them. Just remember to stay 6 feet away, and don't hand it directly to the person.
Once you get your food items, follow these guidelines on how to clean groceries (and what doesn't need cleaning) to ensure your they're safe to eat. (And next, read: How to Keep Your Home Clean and Healthy If You're Self-Quarantined Because of the Coronavirus)
- Wash your hands properly: Once you're home from the market or have handled delivered food or food packages, the first thing you should do is wash your hands correctly using soap and water, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. You should also wash your hands after removing food from any packaging.
- Clean and sanitize touchpoints: Any place where people touch often (like door handles or doorbells) should be cleaned and sanitized frequently.
- Wash reusable grocery bags: If you use reusable grocery bags, toss them in the wash or wash them with soap and water between uses.
- To wipe or not to wipe food packages: COVID-19 can live on cardboard surfaces for up to 24 hours; however, the USDA says that there's no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of the virus. If it does make you feel safer, feel free to do so, just make sure the sanitizing wipes or cleaner you're using doesn't come into contact with the food. (If it does, it can potentially make you sick from ingesting the chemicals.)
- Put away your groceries: You do not want to leave your groceries outside, in your trunk, or in the garage for more than two hours (or 1 hour if it is higher than 90°F outside) as that can lead to foodborne illness, especially with foods like dairy, raw meats and poultry, and others that need to be refrigerated or frozen. Those should be put away immediately.
- Wash and prepare produce: You should not use soap, detergent, chlorine, or bleach to wash produce. These are all cleaners that are not meant to touch food and can ultimately get you sick. (Yes, even if you rinse really well; just the residue of these cleaning items can have negative effects if ingested.) The FDA recommends washing your hands properly with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce. Cut off any damaged or bruised areas before eating or handling. Gently rub the produce while holding under plain running water. Use a clean vegetable brush to clean firm produce like melons or potatoes. Be sure to rinse produce before you peel it, so dirt and bacteria aren't transferred from the knife or peeler onto the fruit or vegetable. Dry produce with a paper towel or clean cloth to reduce bacteria that may be present. If you're washing cabbage or lettuce, remove the outermost leaves. In addition, you don't need to wash produce labeled "ready-to-eat," "washed," or "triple washed" as you have more of a chance of contaminating it in your own home. (This is a long-time recommendation from the FDA. If you've been washing this kind of produce anyway, now is the perfect time to stop.)
- Clean and disinfect your kitchen: Regularly clean and disinfect countertops and surfaces in your kitchen and dining area. (Related: Does Vinegar Kill Viruses?)
Always Follow the 4 Key Steps to Food Safety
These safety tips should always be followed (COVID-19 or not) to protect against foodborne illness. (While you're at it, take advantage of these free cooking demos top chefs are sharing from their homes.)
- Clean surfaces and your hands before and after handling food.
- Separate raw and ready-to-eat foods.
- Cook foods to proper minimum internal temperatures.
- Chill foods in the refrigerator or freezer.