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Several times a day, ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Teresa Hunsaker is asked the same question.
“Can I get the coronavirus by touching the boxes, bottles and bags I buy at the grocery store?”
It’s not the only food-safety query Hunsaker, a family and consumer science educator with Utah State University Extension, gets. She also hears things like:
• “How should I wash my fresh fruits and vegetables?”
• “What do I do if I can’t find bleach or sanitizing wipes at the grocery store?”
• "Is it safe to use reusable grocery bags?”
By the time we actually get our groceries home, most items already have been handled by the employee who stocked the shelf, the cashier and the bagger, she said. And who knows if another customer touched it or, even worse, coughed or sneezed nearby?
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“From the carts to the bags to the produce,' she said, “everything has the potential to spread the virus.”
Yet, there are practical steps everyone can take at the store and at home to stay safe.
First rule, of course, don’t go to the store if you are feeling sick.
AT THE STORE
Clean cart handles • Most grocery store have disinfectant wipes that allow customers to clean the grocery cart before entering the store. If there is a dispenser for hand sanitizer — use it.
Keep your distance • The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, especially between people who are within about 6 feet. “Be courteous in the aisles,” Hunsaker said. Wait for fellow shoppers to move out of the way before reaching in for the bread or, if you’re lucky, toilet paper. Once you’ve put your groceries on the conveyor belt, stand back and let the checker and bagger do their jobs. Use credit cards, not cash.
Produce • While fresh produce is safe when washed (more on that later), consumers who are at risk or have compromised immune systems may want to consider buying fruits and vegetables that are frozen or prepackaged.
Ditch the reusable bags • Even before the coronavirus outbreak, a researcher at Loma Linda University Health found that almost all reusable grocery bags carry bacteria. Now, with the coronavirus, many grocery stores have stopped allowing consumers to bring these personal bags from home as a way to protect employees. For now, use the plastic bags provided by the store and dispose of them when you get home.
Wash your hands • You’ve heard this before, but Hunsaker says it’s worth repeating. After putting away packaged items, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. While it is not the main way the virus spreads, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that it is possible to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching the mouth, nose or eyes.
Wash produce • Shoppers should already have been washing fresh produce to prevent E. coli and salmonella, said Hunsaker. “The recommendation for washing fruits and vegetables has not changed because of the coronavirus.” Wash lettuces and leafy greens in cool water; use a scrub brush on rough textured produce like potatoes, cantaloupes and carrots. It is not necessary to use special rinse solutions, she said. “There is no data that suggests anything more than water will do a better job of eliminating coronavirus on produce.” However, adding a bit of vinegar or lemon juice to the water is acceptable and may help you feel better.
Wipe containers • While hand-washing is probably enough, it can’t hurt to wipe aluminum cans, glass bottles and plastic containers — anything nonporous — with a soapy cloth or a disinfectant wipe before you put the items in the cupboard or refrigerator.
Sanitize surfaces • Once all your groceries are put away, sanitize the counter; the doorknobs and handles; railings; light switches; your phone; the top, bottom and handle of your purse — anything you’ve touched since returning from the store. Don’t forget the steering wheel and the door handle of your car.
Clean utensils • Don’t forget to sanitize sinks, cutting boards and the vegetable brush.
Soap and water • Stores are out of many other sanitizing products, but “good old soap and water” are just as effective, Hunsaker said. Although, if you want to bring your sanitation up a notch, add a small amount of bleach to the water. A little goes a long way: about 4 teaspoons per quart or a third of a cup per gallon. Vinegar works, too, you’ll need 1 cup per gallon.