If you’ve been to the grocery store in the last week or so, you know it can be an extremely chaotic experience amid the coronavirus pandemic. Clerks are running around doing their best to restock as customers are literally climbing into freezers to reach the last pack of frozen berries shoved in the very back of the top shelf. People are swarming the canned goods sections and those preoccupied with crossing items off their lists are temporarily breaking the rule of 6-foot social distancing in order to get their hands on the ripest bananas.
But what happens if someone coughs on a head of lettuce and you end up purchasing it later? Is that box of cereal that you picked up safe from contamination? How many others before you touched it and put it back?
HuffPost caught up with some food safety experts and doctors to answer your questions on how to safely purchase food from the grocery store.
Know that a lot of people are touching the same produce that you are
“The people in a supermarket are all squeezing the avocados and tomatoes,” said Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert in Woodland Hills, California. He added that it’s important to realize that “by the time you get home from the market, you’ve got the germs of like 100 people on top of your produce.”
But there are steps that you can take to minimize this. Nelken recommended for shoppers to grab a plastic produce bag and put their hand inside and use that to pick up something like a head of lettuce. Then drop it into another bag and seal it up. This way, he said, you’re not touching everyone else’s produce and if everyone followed this practice, it could go a long way in helping to curb the spread of germs.
Sanitize your shopping cart
Nelken suggested taking the wipes that grocery stores are providing at entry and using them to scrub down the handles of your cart. It’s also a good idea, he said, to carry a bottle of hand sanitizer with you and to use it after you check out. And if you can, use a credit card in lieu of cash, as he noted the latter has the potential to harbor more bacteria after being passed from person to person.
Rethink your reusable bags
True, you’re saving the environment by forgoing the paper bags issued at checkout, but during a viral outbreak, Nelken said, disposable might be better.
“How many people do you know that bring their own bags clean out those bags or spray them with disinfectants or sanitizer afterward?” he questioned. “Not many.” Per Nelken, these bags, if not properly sanitized after use, have high levels of bacteria and potentially viral particles inside and if reused too quickly ― and without proper sanitation ― could potentially infect you. “If you’re going to reuse them, wash them out or sanitize them afterward,” he said.
Wash your produce when you get home
To rid yourself of any potential viral contamination, thoroughly wash your hands immediately upon returning home from the grocery store, said Jagdish Khubchandani, a health science professor at Indiana’s Ball State University who has studied the impact of viral outbreaks like SARS. Then, place your produce in a vessel and giving it a good rinse in hot water, he recommended.
“And then once you’re done, wash your hands again with soap and water,” he said.
Wiping down your prepackaged foods is not mandatory, but it isn’t necessarily going too far
“Wiping down canned goods isn’t going to hurt them, but it won’t do anything to reduce your risk of infection,” explained Brian Labus, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ School of Public Health. “You can take a lot of steps like that, but they won’t provide anything more than a false sense of security,” he added, noting that “it’s not about the food that you buy, it’s about the interaction you have with other people at the grocery store.”
Thus Labus said to make sure that you are following the recommended hygienic measures such as “limiting your distance to other people and make sure to wash your hands and use hand sanitizer when possible.”
Richard Vayda, restaurant and culinary management instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, added that according to the U.K.’s National Health Service, spreading the virus through packages and food is unlikely. And with most packaging materials, the time of transit also is a deterioration factor.
“Any item exposed to respiratory droplets can be contaminated, although the nature of typical food surfaces, the lag time between purchase and consumption, as well as any cooking, work against infection potential,” he said. But as an extra step, you can cleanse packaging for items that you will be using immediately, “including cleaning/wiping down jars, soda cans, etc.” This, he said, is always advisable on his end, “as there can additionally be physical contaminants that are not easily visible.”
If you are elderly or have chronic health conditions, take extra precautions when shopping
The safest option for more vulnerable individuals (the elderly, immunocompromised, and those with chronic heart and lung diseases) is to ask someone else to do the shopping for them, said Felicia Wu, a John A. Hannah distinguished professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University. “If that is not possible, then I do think it is a good idea for grocery stores to have dedicated hours that are for more vulnerable populations to shop ― ones in which there will be fewer people, and where cleaning can take place beforehand,” she added. As this is starting to happen across the nation ― Erewhon Market in Los Angeles, for example, announced it is opening locations an hour earlier to cater to this higher-risk crowd ― it’s a good idea for individuals in this group to shop during those hours.
The bottom line, said, Josie Greve-Peterson, a PSSI corporate microbiologist, is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not currently have any reports of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted via food or food packaging.
“However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices — i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly ― when handling or preparing foods,” she said.
And since we’re still learning more about the virus daily, it’s a good idea to take any extra precautions you can.