Both the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration maintain that your grocery haul is not a likely vector for the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. Per the FDA’s website, “The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.”
You’re more likely to be exposed from interacting with people at the grocery store than you are from a jar of salsa, but that doesn’t mean shoppers getting groceries for elderly folks or people with compromised immune systems shouldn’t take a few extra minutes to implement some precautions.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to minimizing your risk of COVID-19 exposure from food:
Before you leave for the grocery store:
1. Make a game plan assuming you won’t go back to the store for a couple of weeks. Because our health and food safety organizations say you’re more likely to get the disease from people than potato chips, the first thing you can do to improve your health outcome is to avoid going to the store at all. Take the time to plan your meals, make room in your freezer, and cultivate a list of recipes that rely on staples that last a long time, like beans and pasta.
2. Designate a home sanitation station. That could be your garage, your porch, your apartment hallway, or your kitchen counter. Decide where you will put things that have not been treated and where you will put things that have been sanitized. If you’d like, use painter’s tape to mark off these zones to avoid cross-contamination. Wipe down your clean area with a basic cleaning solution and a clean rag.
If you live in an apartment complex, it’s hard to ensure a spot in the hallway will be clean or remain so. Instead, simply prop open your door and designate everything in the hallway as “untreated.” Everything just over the threshold into your apartment is your “sanitized” zone. If your entryway area is carpeted or you just don’t trust yourself not contaminate it with your shoes, move a table over near the door to be your clean area.
3. Put several clean rags (or a roll of paper towels) and a spray cleaner like Lysol in your sanitation station.
4. If you’re bringing your own bags to the store, use reusable ones that have been washed with soap and hot water. If you don’t have reusable bags that can be thrown in the washing machine, opt for the plastic or paper bags at the store. Some grocery locations do not allow reusable bags at all right now, so check for that.
5. If you have a mask, there’s no harm in wearing it. It’s not clear that wearing a mask helps you or others—and it’s no replacement for a good hand washing—but the New York Times is reporting that the CDC may soon advise people to wear them. Just make sure your cloth mask has been cleaned since you last used it; cloth masks will harbor bacteria and viruses, which could actually up your odds of getting sick. And don’t go buying disposable paper or surgical masks: Hospitals that need them much more than we do are in short supply.
At the grocery store:
6. Make sure to keep 6-10 feet between you and anyone from outside your own household. If somebody’s standing by a place you need to be, you can kindly request that they make room, or just go get something else on your list and try again in a few minutes.
7. Don’t touch your face. Touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your eyes or mouth is the most common way to contract a virus like COVID-19, and the same is true in reverse—touching your face before touching items in the store means you could be shedding viral cells for others to pick up.
8. Sanitize your hands and forearms before re-entering your car, if you can. If you can’t find sanitizer at the store, you can make your own with this recipe.
Back at home:
9. Drop your bags in your unsanitized area, take your shoes off, and go wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds. You can sing a little song to mark the time if you want.
10. If your sanitation station is on the floor, be mindful of your feet. Don’t put dirty shoes in your clean area.
11. Let’s start with packaged items. A lot of things can be easily unwrapped or decanted. If you got a big box of mini bags of pretzels, for example, take the mini bags out of the box and place them in your clean area. Discard the box, and make sure to wash your hands between touching the outer packaging and touching the clean items. Disposable gloves can come in handy here, to keep things clean between steps. Wipe down any other plastic or cardboard packages with cleaner and cloth. You can spray sealed, plastic-wrapped items directly. Wipe cardboard items with a cloth made damp with the cleaner.
12. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap.
13. Now let’s move on to produce. You should not wash your fresh plant ingredients with soap. Soap is not meant to be eaten, and could irritate your stomach or intestines, making you feel nauseous and/or giving you diarrhea. Instead, just follow the FDA guidelines for cleaning produce: wash your items thoroughly with cool water. Use a vegetable brush if you’d like, but make sure it’s clean. Dry all of your items—microbes love moisture—with a paper towel. Viruses don’t live long on porous surfaces like plants, so you’re more likely to get sick from, say, eating an apple while your hands are dirty than you are from eating an apple someone sick touched several hours ago.
That’s it! Enjoy your haul.