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Is it safe to shop for food during the coronavirus pandemic?

Published Mar 30th, 2020 11:26AM EDT
Coronavirus USA
Image: STEFAN POSTLES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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  • Shopping for food and even ordering online can be stressful at this time, as the novel coronavirus outbreak is out of control in many countries around the world.
  • Experts from the CDC and FDA have made it clear that food, even if contaminated with the novel coronavirus, isn’t harmful and won’t lead to an infection as long as other protection measures are in place.
  • The grocery shopping experience needs careful planning as well as increased hygiene. Hand-washing, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding the face from the moment you leave the house until you’ve unpacked should be your priorities.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

You may be sheltering-in-place right now to avoid the novel coronavirus that’s ravaging the world, but you can’t stay indoors forever. You’ll need to go out periodically to buy food and other essential household products, especially if you can’t order any of them online. The question is, is it safe to go grocery shopping in the first place? And the real answer is: it depends. If you’re wondering whether the food you’re about to buy can give you COVID-19, all experts agree that it’s improbable. But again, it really depends on the measures you take to protect yourself.

Wash. Your. Hands.

As we’ve already explained in our previous coverage, food can’t transmit the disease. Even if you’re eating raw or cooked food that’s been sneezed or coughed on, the SARS-CoV-2 virus will most likely end up in your digestive tract where it can do no damage. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that mainly attacks the lungs. And the most common way it gets to your lungs is when you touch those areas after you’ve touched surfaces or after someone sneezed or coughed on you. Tiny droplets can also end up on your hands during a conversation with someone, which why it’s important to keep a safe distance of a few feet — 6 feet is the requirement, but it might not be feasible in stores.

The FDA and the CDC agree that infection via food is highly unlikely:

Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. 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 mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. CDC notes that in general, 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. It is more likely that a person will be exposed by person-to-person transmission involving close contact with someone who is ill or shedding the virus.

Image source: Claudia Greco/AGF/Shutterstock

Plan the visit

Do not worry about touching common areas while in a store or touching products. Just don’t touch your face while you’re out. Get everything you need without hoarding or fighting over products with others, and be ready to choose alternatives as stores run out of things on your list. You should aim to buy enough food to last a week or slightly longer — not months at a time. That’s where lists could come in handy, and you should have them ready before you leave the house. There’s no food shortage, per the FDA, even if you can’t find some of your favorite things right now.

You should avoid touching your face when shopping for food unless you can wash your hands with soap or sanitizer first. Scientists proved that the virus can survive for days on certain surfaces, so assume that everything you touch can be covered with the novel coronavirus. That’s really not what’s happening, and stores will have their own sanitizing practices in place to prevent that. But what matters here is that you have to develop new hygiene habits when shopping.

Always sanitize the handles of the shopping cart or basket, a CDC spokesperson told Time. Do it before you use it and after you’re done with it too.

Incidentally, the use of a mask and gloves isn’t required unless you’re infected and you absolutely have to go out, according to the same CDC spokesperson. Even if with mask and gloves, all it takes for the virus to win is for you to touch your face while wearing gloves.

Moreover, stores will have social distancing measures in place to avoid human interaction as much as possible. If they don’t, you should keep your distance from others and wait if you need to get something from a crowded aisle. Even better, change stores if a different location has better policies.

Avoid touching the hands of the cashier and exchanging money or even credit cards. Use contactless payments where possible — and don’t forget to sanitize the cards and your phone when you get home.

Wash your hands and go home

Sanitize your hands after you’re done shopping, and again after you’ve moved your bags to your car. Sanitize your hands before getting ready to drive home, sanitize the door handles, and even the steering wheel if you want to feel more comfortable.

Once at home, drop your clothes (gloves and mask too, if you’re wearing them), wash your hands, then start unpacking. It’s not necessary to wipe all the packages you bring home, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine assistant professor of emergency medicine Dr. Lauren Sauer told Time. But whether you do it or not, you should wash your hands and disinfect the surfaces you used, including the sink or counters. If you do want to sanitize packaged goods, stay away from bleach, chlorine, and other chemicals that can do more harm than good. And wash your hands with soap after you’re done unpacking. Here’s a list of disinfectants that can be used against SARS-CoV-2, but not food.

Image source: Harvey O. Stowe/Shutterstock

Wash your hands but don’t disinfect food

The CDC also notes that wiping down grocery items isn’t required. “Currently, there is no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging,” a CDC spokesperson told Time.

Absolutely don’t use any chemicals to clean up produce, Florida Gulf Coast University instructor Felicia Goulet-Miller told USA Today. “These are not safe for human consumption and could make you sick,” she said. Washing them with water should suffice. “Even if the fruit has a peel, you should wash it first because touching it could contaminate your hands, and you could then infect yourself as you eat that delicious banana.”

“I absolutely do not recommend soap” for produce, Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences’ professor of food microbiology Don Schaffner told Vox. “Soap is designed for use on dishes or hands. Accidentally ingesting soap can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Lysol is designed for surfaces and not food, so if you sprayed it on a tomato or cucumber, it might be toxic and make the food taste terrible. Bleach can damage your hands, mouth, carpets, etc., so I worry about consequences from using it to manage a negligible risk.”

Image source: Eric Beracassat/SIPA/Shutterstock

Wash your hands and the little things

Remember when you dropped your clothes? Leave the phone with them if you don’t plan on using it immediately. If you do want it, then clean it as soon as you’ve washed your hands and rewash your hands after that. Coronavirus or not, the phone is the dirtiest thing we carry around when it comes to bacteria and viruses. If you can’t find Clorox wipes, you can always clean your smartphone with a UV-C sanitizer. Also clean your credit card, wallet, keys, and doorknobs. The gloves and masks aren’t reusable and need to go to the trash.

Finally, clean reusable bags by throwing them in the wash alongside the clothes you’ve been wearing outside, then rewash your hands. When it comes to cooking the food you’ve just bought, make sure you don’t touch your face after handling packages, throw them out, and wash your hands before you start cooking. The heat itself will kill the virus if it somehow ends up in your food.

Wash your hands and order online

If you can order food online, whether its take-out from restaurants or groceries for delivery, do it. It’s the safest way to buy it, as it minimizes human interaction. People at risk like the elderly or anyone who suspects he or she might be infected should order online if it’s possible. You might want to order well in advance because deliveries might take longer than usual. And don’t forget to tip well.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.