The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has many people staying at home except for essential activities like seeking medical care, exercising, walking their dog, or shopping for groceries.
Shopping for groceries, though, carries extra risk.
Not only are you near other people, but many of the products you’re buying have probably been handled by others — and possibly sneezed or coughed on.
This doesn’t mean you should give up on trips to the supermarket. That’s not really a viable option for most of us.
But you can take a little extra care when handling your groceries to avoid spreading the virus to other people and surfaces in your house.
How big of a risk are groceries?
Charlotte Baker, DrPH, MPH, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia, said your biggest risk at the supermarket is coming into close contact with another person who’s sick.
That’s why it’s important to stay at least 6 feet from other people at all times.
“Do not be afraid to ask others to step back if they are too close to you in line,” said Baker. “Or wait a few moments to grab something if others are already by the item you want.”
It’s not clear, though, how much of a role produce and food packaging plays in transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19.
Still, the World Health OrganizationTrusted Source says that in addition to close person-to-person contact, people can pick up the virus by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.
Some surfaces may pose a bigger risk than others.
A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus was detectable on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours, and on cardboard for up to 24 hours.
Baker said when you’re at the supermarket, you should “assume all surfaces everywhere have been touched by someone who is sick.”
This includes produce and packaged foods.
“Touch just the items you intend to buy, wipe down the cart or basket handles with disinfectant wipes, and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer when you’re done,” she said.
Baker added that many people are also reducing their potential exposure by using curbside pick-up or at-home delivery. Even local food producers are offering these services.
“Some farmers markets are allowing customers to preorder foods so they are already packaged when you come pick them up,” she said, “reducing the amount of time that you need to be near other people and reducing the amount of items that you can touch.”
Cleaning your groceries at home
Whichever way you get your groceries, you’ll want to handle them carefully when you get them home. This will reduce the chance of spreading the virus to other people or surfaces in your house.
Elizabeth L. Andress, PhD, a professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia, said at the very least you should wash your hands after unpacking and putting away your groceries.
If you’re concerned about potential contamination on your groceries, you can take additional steps to protect yourself.
“Some people may choose to wipe or wash cans and boxes of food before storing them to reduce possible virus content,” said Andress. You can also throw out disposable packaging.
When you’re done, she suggests that you wash any tables, countertops, or other surfaces that were touched by your groceries or grocery bags.
And wash your hands again.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers advice for cleaning and disinfecting your homeTrusted Source during the pandemic, including which cleaners work best against SARS-CoV-2.
If you’re using cloth bags, wash them with laundry soap in a washing machine and dry them thoroughly before reusing them.
Medical reference: Healthline