Do you need to sanitize your groceries? COVID-19 food tips from HudsonAlpha

By: Lucy Berry DeButy

The COVID-19 outbreak has changed our lives in many ways, including how we shop for groceries and order food.

The once routine task is now full of scary unknowns – is it safe to bring outside items into your home? Do you need to wash everything you buy? What can you do to reduce your chances of getting sick when shopping for essentials or picking up takeout?

We talked with Dr. Neil Lamb, vice president of educational outreach at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville. Dr. Lamb is the voice behind Beyond the Blog, a video series that breaks down COVID-19, how it spreads and what scientists are doing to diagnose and treat the disease.

Check out the Q&A below about how you can shop safer and help slow the spread of coronavirus in our community.

Do I need to disinfect my groceries or takeout boxes?

Dr. Lamb: The biggest threat at the grocery store is the other people, not the boxes and cans. The possibility that someone infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 actually coughed or sneezed on a box, can or takeout container is relatively small, but it’s not zero. The scientific data suggests that live virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on stainless steel for 2-3 days. So, if it gives you peace of mind, you could certainly disinfect your groceries or takeout boxes. That is a judgment call for each person to make. You could also discard the packages and store the food in a bag or other container (which would save the cleaning solutions to be used disinfecting household surfaces).

If you decide to disinfect packaging, first set up a “dirty” and “clean” space on the countertop. Unload the groceries into the dirty space. Wipe the surface of each can, box and container with a disinfecting solution – this can be a disposable wipe, an alcohol-based cleaning spray or with a spray bottle of diluted bleach (4 teaspoons per quart of water) and a paper towel or cloth. As you clean each item, transfer it to the clean space. When done, disinfect the dirty side of the counter and wash your hands. As an aside, do NOT wash your fruits and veggies with bleach or soap – this can actually make you sick. Rinse it in cool running water.

Are reusable bags safe to use at the grocery store?

Dr. Lamb: Yes, they are safe to use – it makes sense to wash them periodically. The plastic inserts in the bottom can be wiped down with a disinfecting wipe, alcohol-based cleaning spray or diluted bleach.

Is it necessary to leave packages/food outside for a period of time to “air out” before bringing them inside?

Dr. Lamb: No – and, in some cases, it can be dangerous to leave food outside where it can’t be maintained at the proper temperature. If you are concerned about packaging, throw it away or wipe it down as described above.

Do I need to wear a mask while at the store or out and about?

Dr. Lamb: Yes, the CDC has recently recommended individuals wear a reusable cloth face covering when in public spaces, such as the grocery store or pharmacy. This provides you with some protection from other individuals who may be infectious and also protects other people from your respiratory droplets if you are infectious. We know that a significant percentage of individuals infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have no symptoms, but can pass the virus on to other individuals who may become very sick. Cloth face coverings help slow the spread. Save the surgical masks and N95 masks for the healthcare workers.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting sick at the grocery store?

Dr. Lamb: Consider going shopping during times when crowds are smaller. Have a shopping list and make your trip as brief as possible. Minimize the number of things you touch – this is not the time to pick up lots of containers and inspect the labels. Pay with a credit card rather than giving the clerk cash and getting back change. Keep social distance – even when wearing a facial covering. Use hand sanitizer when you leave the store or once you get back to your car.

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