COVID-19: Do I really need to wipe down my groceries?

The greatest threat while you're grocery shopping is other people, not packaging

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      You’ve probably seen videos and news stories about people wiping down their fruit, veggies, cracker boxes, bread bags, cans of soup, and so on in an attempt to protect themselves from getting sick.

      We’re all worried about contracting novel coronavirus and can’t be too careful.

      Or can we?

      Here’s some of the latest advice being offered by experts on what to do to keep your home safe and your family healthy after a trip to the grocery store.

      First, keep in mind that the coronavirus is not transmitted via food itself.

      Where people get concerned is the possibility of the virus living on surfaces. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the virus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic.

      Experts say the risk of consumers catching the novel coronavirus from picking up items off grocery-store shelves appears to be low. However, it’s too early to draw conclusions and there’s no such thing as zero risk.

      Those who would simply still feel better cleaning their boxes and cans can use sanitizing wipes or cloths with soap and water. Other options are to transfer goods into clean containers you have at home or to remove exterior packaging. 

      However, according to microbiologist Donald Schaffner, a food-safety expert at Rutgers University, you don’t need to sanitize every single box and bag that comes into your house.

      “I think that this is…advice that does not make scientific sense,” Schaffner notes in Scientific American. “If you are concerned about the outside of food packages being contaminated, I suggest that you wash your hands and/or sanitize your hands before you sit down to eat any food that you might've taken out of those containers. And guess what, washing your hands before you eat is a best practice even when we're not in a pandemic!”

      Washing fresh produce with soap is a major no-no, in Schaffner’s books. Ingesting it could cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

      Health Canada recommends washing fresh produce in fresh, cool, running water.

      The federal body also suggests using a clean produce brush to scrub items that have firm surfaces, such as oranges, melons, potatoes, and carrots.

      Other tips?

      Have a shopping list ready and make your trip as swift as possible. No dilly-dallying down the aisles.

      Practise physical distancing: stay at least two metres (six feet) away from others. You're at far greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus from being sneezed or coughed on by someone who's infected than by picking up a bag of apples or can of beans. 

      Some people opt to wear disposable gloves while they shop. Be sure to remove these properly before getting in your car or entering your home and dispose of them properly. You still need to wash your hands after wearing disposable gloves.

      If there’s hand sanitizer at the store’s entrance, use it upon exiting.

      Wash your hands as soon as you get home for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing backs and palms of hands, thumbs, between the fingers, under the nails, and wrists. Wash your hands again after putting all of your food away.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Instagram @gailjohnsonvancouver and Twitter @GailJohnsonVan.A previous version of this article pointed to the use of reusable shopping bags. The BC Ministry of Health has banned them, advising retailers to provide clean, carry-out bags.