Here’s What You Need to Know About Grocery Shopping During Coronavirus

published Mar 21, 2020
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We know there are a lot of questions swirling around right now when it comes to grocery shopping and the coronavirus. We have those questions, too. (We’re all in uncharted territory here. Together!) So we turned to the experts to get answers and current information about what’s safe. Here are the most frequently asked questions we’ve been hearing-slash-asking when it comes to grocery shopping and groceries.

NOTE: The situation (and available information) is changing by the day, and sometimes, by the hour right now. We spoke with experts and gathered information on March 18. Things may have changed by the time you get to reading this. We will try to update this post as we learn more, but for the most up-to-date information related to food safety, be sure to head to the FDA’s website

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Is it safe to go to the grocery store?

Obviously we are staying home and limiting human interaction in the effort to limit the virus’ spread. Does going to the grocery store negate those efforts? After talking with the experts for this story, we feel a lot better about just going to the store and coming right back. 

The chief concern, of course, has to do with coming in contact with someone who is sick, or spreading sickness. This is where social distancing comes in; you should stay at least six feet away from other shoppers. Another point of concern: the grocery cart handle (use those sanitizing wipes that are available at the entrances of your store to wipe down the cart before you shop!). Be sure to wash your hands when you get home and when you’re done unpacking the groceries (more on that below). And do not touch your face between these steps.

Is it safe to order grocery delivery?

The groceries themselves are likely fine (more on that below). The risk here is coming into contact with a delivery person who might be infected. But that’s why more and more grocery delivery companies are offering a no-contact option, which means your order will be left on your porch or at your doorstep. We recommend this.

Is it safe to handle groceries and bags from the store?

And then, what about food and food packaging itself? The FDA website says this: “Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. Like other viruses, it is possible that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces or objects. For that reason, it is critical to follow the 4 key steps of food safety — clean, separate, cook, and chill.” 

Here’s what that means, practically. Ben Chapman, Ph.D., a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University explained that directive to us: The virus could be present on packaging, but because microbes are difficult to transfer from a surface to hands, and are susceptible to cleaning and disinfection, we can practice a lot of the same steps that have been identified as good practices — handwashing, cleaning/sanitizing, cooking food to proper temperatures, and keeping food refrigerated (although the last two have nothing at all to do with COVID-19 risks and everything to do with normal, everyday food safety). As always, we recommend having and using a reliable food thermometer like our favorite, below.

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Do I need to wipe down cans, bags, and boxes with disinfecting wipes when I get them home?

“Based on what we know today, that’s not something I would suggest,” says Chapman. He just doesn’t think it’s necessary. Because your chances of getting the virus this way are just so, so low. But hey, if it makes you feel better to wipe things down and you still have wipes, it doesn’t hurt, he says. “With all the uncertainty and evolving information and anxiety, if it gives people a sense of control, that’s totally valid.”

What he says is necessary, though, is a good post-grocery-handling hand-washing session: “I’m going to wash my hands after I touch the groceries as a way to stop that very low chance of transmission.” So he puts everything away at home, then washes his hands, and “I am really really careful in the process of preparing food about hand-washing.” Meaning, he washes his hands at multiple steps along the way of food prep. Wash your hands after you take those mushrooms out of the carton. After you open that can of tomato paste. Again after opening that box of pasta. You get the point.

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What about fresh produce? Can the coronavirus live on fresh fruits and vegetables?

Again, the FDA says there’s no evidence that this particular virus can be transmitted via food surfaces. However, it’s worth noting that there is data that some viruses can live on food surfaces, according to a study that looked at other respiratory viruses. But. But! Chapman says our risk of contracting the virus from food is very, very low.

Let’s say, in a worst case scenario, an infected person coughed on those salad greens you’re eyeing. If any droplets come from that person’s mouth and land on the lettuce, it’s a limited amount of droplets that are actually viable, Chapman says. And even that subsides over time.

We are hearing a lot on the news about how many days the virus might live on surfaces, but the primary concern is hard surfaces. Nobody’s saying to set a timer on your produce before it’s safe to eat, though. Instead, Wash. Your. Produce.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What is the best way to wash my fresh produce?

Wash it with cool running water, says Amanda Deering, Ph.D., an Extension specialist in Purdue University’s Department of Food Science. And no, not with soap. “I see a lot of stuff out there saying to use soap and water because that’s how we advise people to wash their hands,” she said, “however the FDA has never advised that. The recommendation is to use a clean vegetable brush especially if it’s anything that has a harder surface like a cantaloupe, just brush it under cool running water. But make sure you clean that veggie brush with soap and water and rinse it [after each use].”  

Now back to the concern that someone who’s infected coughed on your lettuce greens before you picked them up. “Is washing 100 percent effective?” Chapman asks. “No. But what’s my likelihood with all these chances of the virus getting deposited on the lettuce and surviving over time? There is going to be a decline over time on that particular product, and I can rinse off stuff that has made its way to a place where the mucus droplets can hide. And again, it was a really, really, really low risk that the virus would transfer to me to begin with.”

Does heating or cooking food kill the virus?

Short answer? Yes. As for a specific recommendation, the best data we have is [to reach and maintain] 149-degrees F for three minutes, Chapman says. But, once again for anyone in the back, wash your produce before you cook it.

Does freezing food kill coronavirus germs?

Freezing fresh produce or other food in attempts to kill viral matter is not the best method and not effective. Consider the fact that freezing is how they preserve viruses in the lab, Chapman points out. That said, if you’re freezing food, you’re probably also washing it and cooking it. And, once again, those two things are helpful in this case.

Credit: Charity Burggraaf

Is it safer to get produce from a farmer’s market? 

The idea here is that maybe fewer people have handled the produce than something that’s being commercially sold. This is a judgment call, Deering says. Maybe fewer people have touched it, but there’s no guarantee. (Now does it taste better, and support your local growers? Yes! That’s another matter!) Wherever you buy it, just wash it first!

I think I’m going to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables now, just to be safe. Is that okay?

Well, the wisdom we all heard growing up still holds true about eating our veggies. A statement from Purdue tells us we shouldn’t be afraid of produce and in fact, we need it more than ever: 

“The incorporation of fresh fruits and vegetables into one’s diet has consistently been shown to increase overall health, including the immune system. Staying healthy increases the body’s ability to fight infections. By taking a few common-sense precautions, such as frequent hand-washing and washing of produce, consumers can continue to reap the health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables without incurring excessive risk of acquiring COVID-19.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What if I’m part of a higher risk group? Should I buy pre-packaged produce?

“Consumers who are immunocompromised should consider purchasing pre-packaged fruits and vegetables as an added measure of caution or choose to eat cooked fruits and vegetables at this time,” Deering says.

Is it safe to buy prepared food from, say, the grocery store’s deli counter?

Food service providers always follow very strict health and safety guidelines and efforts are even more intense now. Sick employees are staying home, hands are being washed more than ever, and extra sanitizing regulations are being put in place.

Beyond those things, though “It falls back on the fact that food has a very low, low risk of transmission,” Chapman reminds us. “It’s not an area of risk that I’m really concentrating on. It keeps coming back to the fact that food’s not something we’ve seen as a means of transmission.”

If you’re worried about the packaging the prepared food comes in, “I treat it the same as my cereal boxes or other packages and wash my hands,” after handling it, he says.

Are we going to run out of food?

No! Although shoppers are acting like the supply chain is shutting down, it is not! Forbes confirms this. The New York Times confirms this. The Toronto Sun confirms this. The point: There is no need to stockpile food or toilet paper. In fact, you really shouldn’t.

This article originally appeared on Kitchn. See it here: All Your Urgent Coronavirus-Related Grocery Shopping Questions, Answered