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Masks, handwashing, hand sanitizer, social distancing, bare shelves …. the new norms for anxiety-producing trips to the grocery store.

I want to allay anxiety you may feel about shopping and the food that you are bringing home. Groceries, food packaging and takeout food do not seem to be a source of COVID-19 infections. 

SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, has not been found to infect individuals through food or food packaging. Although theoretically possible, transmission of the virus seems to be almost entirely by airborne droplets – stuff coming out of mouths with talking, coughing or sneezing. 

To limit your risks at the store, shop when the store is least crowded or first thing in the morning when it is likely to be cleanest, and touch as few things as possible. Maintain a six-foot distance from others in the store, wear cloth masks and don’t touch your face after touching food or food packaging until after you are able to wash your hands.

At home, a few extra precautions and following generally recommended food handling practices — lots of handwashing, thoroughly cleaning food preparation and eating surfaces, rinsing fresh produce before eating and heating food to sufficiently high temperatures should keep your household safe. 

After entering your home and bringing in the groceries, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water and dry with a clean paper towel. 

Perishable foods should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible. Cold temperatures do not reduce SARS-CoV-2 viability but will keep food from deteriorating and reduce your risk of food poisoning from other germs. Storing food in translucent bags or containers so that you know what you have can help in two ways; you will be able to see what is in the crowded refrigerator so that it doesn’t spoil before you use it, and it can reduce risks of contaminating other foods. There is no need to wash food or food packaging prior to storing. 

After storing groceries, wash your hands again and wash and sanitize food preparation or eating surfaces that held your grocery bags. If you have used cloth reusable bags, you may want to put these in the washing machine. Clean the surfaces with soap and water and rinse and dry with a paper towel. This step — just like washing our hands — physically removes dirt and germs. Soap also destabilizes membranes of many bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and reduces the number of viable germs. 

Effectively sanitizing after cleaning will put the finishing touch on your efforts. Sanitizing requires an effective disinfecting agent and using it properly. For disinfecting solid surface counter tops, a diluted bleach solution is probably easiest to use. Bleach must be diluted with water in the right proportion and left on the surface long enough. 

Proper dilution of bleach depends upon the percentage of sodium hypochlorite in your bleach. This percentage will be listed on your bleach bottle label. If your bleach contains 6% sodium hypochlorite, you will use one teaspoon of bleach to each cup of water. 

The bleach solution should be sprayed or wiped on surfaces and surfaces should remain damp for five minutes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had recommendations ranging from one minute to five minutes with the latest recommending at least one minute. A thorough explanation, with a chart showing dilution proportions for different strength bleaches and discussion about using bleach for disinfection can be found at the Michigan State University website, https://bit.ly/msudisinfecting.

When you are ready to use your groceries, wash your hands before handling your food and after touching packaging. Most produce should be rinsed gently but thoroughly under running water. Vegetables and fruits with thick skins should be scrubbed with a brush. There is no need to use any soaps or other agents to clean produce.

Cold temperatures do not destroy SARS-CoV-2, but cooking temperatures will. Heating foods to minimum recommended temperatures may be the final step needed to address your fears about SARS-CoV-2 contamination on food. This step is always recommended to keep you from getting food poisoning from other germs on your groceries and will effectively destroy SARS-CoV-2. 

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or lashallcross@alaska.edu.