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Do You Really Need to Disinfect Your Groceries Right Now?

We got the facts.

April  2, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.


The slight silver lining of quarantine is the additional time we have now to spend with our families, sort things (i.e. cabinets) out, and attempt new cooking projects. But, with home cooking comes grocery shopping, which, amid coronavirus, is not absent of food safety-related concerns and questions.

For example: Do we need to be cleaning or disinfecting our groceries in a special way? In a time when exercising an overabundance of caution has become the norm, it can be difficult to know if you’re doing too much (or not enough) to maintain a clean kitchen, let alone home. So, to get to the bottom of things, I spoke with Kimberly Baker, PhD, RD, LD, a Food Systems and Safety Program director at Clemson University. Here are five things we should be doing to keep our kitchen, food, and selves safe while quarantining.


5 Tips for Clean & Safe Groceries

1. Keep up your regular cleaning routine.

Ideally, you already clean your kitchen, meaning you wipe down and disinfect your work surfaces, sink, and cooking equipment regularly. The Cornell University Institute for Food Safety notes that it's important to give any disinfectants adequate time to take effect, so use them as instructed.

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Top Comment:
“I read the columns and advice about disinfecting the home and home kitchen. But we do not go out except for walks in the neighborhood, and have no contact with others except from across a street. On the one occasion when my husband went to a store (the wild birdseed shop does not deliver), the packages were left in the car for three days and he washed hands and all touch points he used as soon as he entered the house. So we think we are safe and do not need to disinfect the home or kitchen. Contrary views? ”
— soosie
Comment

Along with that, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds before and after handling a single food item—this rule is especially important when you're switching between handling raw meat and fresh produce. While these measures may feel a bit excessive (especially while quarantined), Dr. Baker says it's crucial we maintain them while quarantined, as they'll mitigate the risk of the virus spreading to you or anyone you're co-isolating with.

2. Don’t forget overlooked touchpoints.

Additionally, Dr. Baker says to be extra-cognizant of areas you repeatedly touch while preparing a meal, such as handles and knobs on your cabinets, oven, refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave, and faucet.

“These items do not get cleaned frequently enough and these areas are very important to think of in a time like this,” she explains, adding that these points are also often touched by people just passing through the kitchen, who likely don’t have freshly washed hands.

3. Wash your produce thoroughly (No soap necessary).

Despite our good intentions and best efforts to be extra-cleanly, there is no need to wash produce with soap. According to the USDA, cleaning fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or disinfectant is, in fact, dangerous and could make you sick.

What you should do is wash each type of produce separately, in order to avoid cross-contamination. Dr. Baker also suggests setting aside a scrubbing brush just for produce. Foods that are wrapped or will be cooked through, like meat and eggs, don’t need to be washed before using.

4. You can clean food packaging, if you want.

“At this time, there are no reports that the virus has spread through food packaging,” Dr. Baker says. However, she also points out that studies have shown the virus can remain viable (though in diminishing concentrations over time, as Live Science reported) for up to three days on plastic and metal, and for up to 24 hours on cardboard.

So, if you have good reason to believe there could be virus on your groceries, you can wipe down packages of food with a paper towel and disinfectant spray. Dr. Baker says you can also wipe down and “quarantine” non-perishable items in low-traffic areas of your home (say, your garage or back porch) for 24 hours if you wish—just make sure they're out of direct heat or light for their longevity's sake. But, perishable items should go in the fridge or freezer as soon as they arrive home.

5. Watch for food safety updates.

As we continue to learn more about how COVID-19 spreads, official food safety guidelines and recommendations may change. You can follow coronavirus-related news from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) here, and you can even submit your own questions about the virus to the FDA here.

What's your go-to method for washing produce? Tell us about it in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Peaches
    Peaches
  • Marie Frank
    Marie Frank
  • Anita Lipson
    Anita Lipson
  • Chris Bryant
    Chris Bryant
  • Abra
    Abra
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Sara Coughlin is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Although she writes about food, health, wellness, lifestyle trends, skin-care, and astrology, she’d much rather talk to you about professional wrestling, rock climbing, and her personal favorite true crime theories. You can find her in her studio apartment doing yoga while a pan of veggies gently burns in the oven.

9 Comments

Peaches April 26, 2020
This article (and especially the comments) reminds me that during this time the most ordinary activities are something we each have to figure out. Speaking just for myself, that makes life tiring and sometimes exhausting. Everyone has different thresholds for acceptable risks (not to mention vulnerabilities) and so finding universal answers is tough, thanks for the information.
 
Marie F. April 5, 2020
The heat and UV light killing the virus is not proven, and the article I read said the CDC is telling people that this is a rumor, and has no validity.
 
Liz S. April 8, 2020
From my reading … and I bought a UV sanitizer "bag" … UV does not destroy RNA viruses (vs DNA viruses). COVID-19 as well as Influenza are RNA viruses. BUT, I am happy to use UV for bacteria and any DNA virus.
 
Anita L. April 5, 2020
I read heat and UV light kill the virus. 24 hours with heat and light won't hurt packaged groceries.
 
Chris B. April 5, 2020
Husband and I have been looking for guidance on this issue but disappointed by this piece. Four of the five points regurgitate standard food and cooking safety rules everyone has heard for years. Only one mentions cleaning food and packaging with CV in mind. And that advice is lukewarm—”if you want to.”

Grocery shoppers (and their children) sneeze and cough their way through the store—likely spraying fluids over packaged food, and most concerning, produce.

For us, “an abundance of caution” compels a specific choreography. We wear gloves and masks to each store, put smart phones in baggies, paying with ApplePay or the like. For produce, I (sadly) go for packaged if there is a choice. Outside the store, we remove gloves/masks before getting into the car.

Once home, I unload groceries on the porch, take off our shoes and outer clothing, put on new gloves, remove each item from the bags and bring into kitchen to dip in a basin of Clorox, Dawn and water—even produce. Dispose of bags. Remove gloves. Place perishables in fridge, undress and shower, put away remaining food.

And to minimize time in store, I make carefully considered grocery lists, divided by section.

Perhaps an overabundance of caution, but realizing one is in an acutely vulnerable group is a perspective changer, there’s not much margin of error.

 
Chris B. April 5, 2020
Overlooked one step, I thoroughly rinse under running water and dry the items dipped into disinfecting solution.
 
Lisa M. April 5, 2020
It's unlikely that you'll be infected by the virus via your groceries, according to Dr. Tamika Sims, the Director of Food Technology Communications at the International Food Information Council.

In addition to being unhelpful in preventing infection, since food isn't a likely source of contagion anyway, bleach could also present health risks of its own. Food safety guides advise against using bleach or detergent on anything you're going to eat.

"Bleach is not meant to be used to clean any foods or food products. The ingestion of any amount of bleach can be a major health hazard," Sims said.

Too much bleach can cause irritation to your eyes, skin, mouth and throat. Spraying bleach is particularly bad because it can cause lung irritation if it (or the fumes of concentrated bleach) are inhaled. That's the last thing you want if you're worried about coronavirus, which can cause severe respiratory issues.

If you are concerned about your fruits and vegetables, there's safer ways to obtain peace of mind — just cook them, or wash them thoroughly with warm water, according to Sims.

"CDC has told us that this virus denatures (breaks down) relatively easily with warm water and with heat," she said.
 
Abra April 5, 2020
Consumer Reports recommends washing fruits and vegetables in a baking soda and water solution to remove pesticides, so that’s the method I use. I figure if it removes pesticides, it’ll remove other contaminates too (I hope).
https://www.consumerreports.org/pesticides-herbicides/easy-way-to-remove-pesticides/
 
soosie April 4, 2020
I read the columns and advice about disinfecting the home and home kitchen. But we do not go out except for walks in the neighborhood, and have no contact with others except from across a street. On the one occasion when my husband went to a store (the wild birdseed shop does not deliver), the packages were left in the car for three days and he washed hands and all touch points he used as soon as he entered the house. So we think we are safe and do not need to disinfect the home or kitchen. Contrary views?