For a lot of people right now, going to get groceries and toiletries is the only thing we leave our homes for. And as we’re trying to maintain quarantine, disinfecting each and every item we bring home has also become the norm.
With the Covid-19 pandemic still in full swing and ~50,000 confirmed deaths in the U.S. alone, such precautions seem obvious. But do virologists and other infectious disease experts agree that disinfecting all groceries is necessary?
According to a lot of specialists such as Angela Rasmussen from the Center of Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, disinfecting your groceries is not nearly as important as maintaining social distancing in the store itself.
“While it is possible to contract the virus [from contaminated surfaces], the majority of transmission is probably going to be from respiratory droplets, which you’re exposed to when you’re around other people.”
Food microbiologist and professor at Rutgers University Donald Schaffner also agrees. He adds that it’s more important to look for grocery stores that limit the number of shoppers they let in so that maintaining social distancing in the store is more manageable. While it may be tempting to go to a store with no line in front of it than to one with 20+ people waiting, if the second one has fewer people inside, that’s the safer option.
Being careful inside the store is also crucial, according to the Rutgers University professor.
“Be as efficient as possible in the store,” Schaffner says. “Have a list. Move through the store quickly and efficiently. Get out of the way. Be respectful of other people. Maintain social distance while you’re in the store.”
Don’t go overboard with disinfecting your groceries
While it is possible to get infected by a virus that’s on the corner of a cereal box or another item from the grocery store, experts agree that the likelyhood of that happening is minimal. More importantly, a more efficient way to protect yourself is to simply follow good hygiene basics and wash your hands after you unpack the groceries, before and after cooking, and before eating. Disinfecting your hands after leaving the store is also smart. If you do this regularly, disinfecting every single grocery item won’t be necessary.
“Time is really on your side here,” says Dr. Aronoff. “After 24 hours, the vast majority of the virus is no longer infectious.” After 72 hours, he adds, the virus is usually undetectable on most surfaces. So, especially when it comes to groceries that you know you’re not going to use or touch for a while, disinfecting them is simply unnecessary.
What seems to be much more important is disinfecting the countertop where you’ve unpacked all the groceries as well as the door handles, water taps, and light keys you’ve touched in the meantime.
On the other hand, a lot of people think that freezing their items overnight eliminates the virus – that is NOT the case so remember to take precautions regardless of whether your groceries have been in the freezer or not.
Use Soap and Water
Another tip from the professionals is that if you do want to disinfect your packaged groceries, using disinfectant sprays or wipes is not better than using soap and water. That’s both because 1) most food items can be damaged by disinfectant sprays through their packaging and 2) soap and water is just as effective.
Dr. Schaffner also adds that “There’s just no evidence that these foods can transmit the virus or can cause COVID-19.” So, washing them only brings the risk of ingesting soap residue afterward.
As for showering after each trip to the shop, there are different opinions.
“I personally don’t like to do a full de-con [de-contamination] when I get home from the store,” Rasmussen says. “I wash my hands. I’m not routinely putting my face and mouth all over my clothing.”
She does note that people in the risk groups or people with children might want to consider taking a shower and throw their clothes in the washing machine.
“People with small children might consider otherwise, since kids — especially little kids — are maybe not so concerned about where they put their mouths or their hands.” She concluded that it’s a matter of personal preference. “If you feel more comfortable changing clothes and taking a shower after you come back from an essential errand, then by all means do so,” she says.