Grocery Safety 101: How to Stay Safe and Sanitize Your Groceries

Your guide to the CDC and FDA's food safety recommendations during the novel coronavirus.

Right now, we're all taking extra precautions to keep ourselves and our families safe. But if the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has you worried about food safety, let us put your mind to ease: According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 through food is extremely low.

"Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food," CDC writes.

While there is no current evidence of transmission through food, a preliminary study suggests that COVID-19 can be transmitted through surfaces; according to National Institute of Health scientists, COVID-19 bacteria can survive "up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel." However, COVID-19 remains primarily transmitted from person to person. "It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, like a packaging container, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads," writes CDC. "In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging."

The best way to protect yourself and others from contracting the novel coronavirus—which spreads primarily through person-to-person transmission of respiratory droplets—is to follow general hygienic principles: "Throughout the day use a tissue to cover your coughing or sneezing, and wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom." (We're washing our hands to the tune of Jolene.)

Although risk of COVID-19 transmission through food or surfaces remains very low, there are still measures you can take to clean your produce and food packaging. These guidelines apply specifically to the coronavirus and more broadly as general food safety tips and should be practiced anytime you are handling fresh produce.

Grocery Store Safety Measures

Since COVID-19 is primarily transmitted from person to person, grocery shopping in the presence of others places you at heightened risk. However, there are cautionary measures you can take to minimize your chance of exposure. Follow CDC guidelines of social distancing, remaining 6 feet away from other shoppers or grocery store employees. Only touch products you are going to buy, don't crowd sections or aisles, and thoroughly wash your hands before and after a trip to the grocery store (if you have hand sanitizer accessible, use this throughout your shopping trip).

According to TIME, "A spokesperson for the CDC recommends people clean their shopping cart or basket—specifically the handles and other surface areas—either with their own disinfectant wipes or wipes provided by the store." Don't touch your hands to your face, and if possible, use a cashless payment method. You can also reduce potential risk of exposure by opting for curbside pickup or food delivery, which many grocery stores now offer.

How to Clean Grocery Bags and Food Packaging

Reusable grocery bags offer an environmentally friendly way to transport your groceries. Although bags, like any other surfaces, can potentially pick up or carry germs or bacteria, the risk of contracting COVID-19 through surfaces remains very low.

"While it is theoretically possible that a reusable bag may pick up germs, including coronavirus while in the grocery store, the biggest threat that anyone faces is someone else in the store who has COVID-19," Donald W. Schaffner, PhD, tells Wirecutter. To practice extra caution, you can wash your reusable grocery bags at home or leave the bags in the garage for a couple of days to neutralize the threat of any lingering bacteria.

In the same vein, you can remove produce from its packaging and transfer the fruits and vegetables to your own bowls, containers, or Tupperware. Healthline consults Elizabeth L. Andress, PhD, a professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia, who advises washing your hands before and after putting away groceries, as well as wiping down any surfaces that groceries or grocery bags have come into contact with. "Some people may choose to wipe or wash cans and boxes of food before storing them to reduce possible virus content," Andress notes.

How to Clean Your Groceries

Your food safety measures should start at the grocery store. Select produce that is not damaged, cut, or bruised—bacteria can harbor in these areas. If you don't come across an imperfection on your produce until you get home, FDA guidelines recommend to "cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away any produce that looks rotten."

While shopping, storing, and preparing fresh fruits and vegetables, ensure that your produce does not come into contact with any raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Bag and store these items separately to prevent cross-contamination. Additionally, FDA recommends to "Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with soap and hot water between preparing raw meat, poultry, and seafood and preparing produce that will not be cooked."

FDA recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before handling any fresh fruit, vegetables, or other produce. Rinse your produce before peeling to ensure that no dirt or bacteria transfer from the knife or peeler onto the fruit or vegetable. "Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers' market," advises FDA. There is one exception to this rule: If produce is advertised as "pre-washed" on the label, you can safely use the produce without additional washing, according to the FDA.

When it comes to washing your produce, rinsing under plain running water is the most effective strategy. Gently rub the produce with your fingers or scrub firm produce (such as melons, cucumbers, or potatoes) with a clean vegetable brush. FDA writes, "Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or commercial produce wash is not recommended." (So no, there's no need to pick up that bottle of produce wash.)

After washing, drying your produce helps to further reduce bacteria that may be clinging to the surface. Use a clean cloth towel or paper towel to gently blot the fruit or vegetable until dry. When working with a head of lettuce or cabbage, remove the outermost leaves, which protect the inner leaves from dirt or bacteria.

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