Even before coronavirus, studies like this one this one found that supermarkets are like petri dishes of pathogenic germs.
Shopping cart handles have 361 times more bacteria than your toilet handle. The freezer doors had even more than this!
It is always advisable to take precautions like wiping down carts and sanitizing your hands immediately after shopping.
With a deadly pandemic going on though, the need for precaution is even greater. You don’t want the COVID-19 virus sneaking into your home through grocery items. Yes, it takes a lot of cleaner, planning, and time, but disinfecting your groceries and delivery items is a small step you can take to prevent getting sick.
- 1 Do You Need to Disinfect Your Groceries or Delivery Items?
- 2 How to Disinfect Groceries and Deliveries: Step by Step
- 2.1 Understand How Long COVID-19 Lasts on Surfaces
- 2.2 Choose the Right Disinfectants
- 2.3 Precautions in the Store
- 2.4 Loading Items into Your Car
- 2.5 Set Up a Clean and Dirty Area in Your Home
- 2.6 Disinfect Groceries and Put into Clean Area
- 2.7 Put Your Grocery Items Away
- 2.8 Disinfect Anything You Touched with Dirty Hands
- 3 Disinfecting Produce
- 4 Disinfecting Takeout and Food Delivery
Do You Need to Disinfect Your Groceries or Delivery Items?
Whether or not you should disinfect your groceries and delivery items is a controversial issue. Many experts and the CDC reassuringly say that COVID-19 primarily spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets and there is currently no evidence of it spreading from food.
However, the CDC also warns,
“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, like a packaging container, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”
Despite this, the FDA still does not recommend disinfecting grocery packaging. Instead, they say you should simply “wash your hands after handling food packaging, after removing food from the packaging, before you prepare food for eating and before you eat.”
How would this work in practice? It would mean you would have to immediately wash your hands after putting away groceries. You want a snack? Don’t eat it from the package. Instead, get the snack and put it in bowl. Then wash your hands before eating.
Why I Still Disinfect My Groceries
Even though it isn’t recommended by the FDA or CDC, I still disinfect my groceries: It’s a lot easier for me to disinfect everything when I get it than wash my hands each time I touch food packaging.
There’s also the logistics: What if I put a food package on the counter? Do I need to disinfect the counter now too? Suddenly, I’m spending the entire day cleaning and washing my hands!
I’ve also got two small kids who are constantly grabbing at snacks. They definitely can’t be trusted to not touch their face after touching a bag of food.
How to Disinfect Groceries and Deliveries: Step by Step
These instructions are for disinfecting items from the supermarket. If you need to disinfect delivery items, just skip steps 3 and 4.
Understand How Long COVID-19 Lasts on Surfaces
The first step to disinfecting groceries is understanding the risk period. The most commonly-cited study which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that COVID-19 survives for these periods:
- Plastic: 72 hours
- Stainless Steel: 48 hours
- Cardboard: 24 hours
This is important to know because, in some cases, you can put your groceries or deliveries in “quarantine” somewhere they won’t be disturbed for at least three days. Then you don’t have to bother disinfecting them at all.
Obviously this isn’t possible with products like meat, dairy, or frozen goods. However, quarantining some of your shopping items means you have less to disinfect.
Choose the Right Disinfectants
In normal times, you might prefer to use natural disinfectants like vinegar or essential oils. Unfortunately, these are not effective against coronavirus. If you want to disinfect your groceries or deliveries, you must use one which is actually proven to kill SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes COVID-19).
The good news is that this study found coronaviruses can be inactivated within 1 minute with:
- Alcohol at strength of 62%-72%
- Hydrogen peroxide 0.5%
- Household bleach containing 0.1% sodium hypochlorite
Note that the disinfectant benzalkonium chloride (the active ingredient in many Lysol products) was found to be less effective at killing the COVID-19 virus.
To see which disinfectants work on coronavirus, see the EPA’s list of approved disinfectants.
Precautions in the Store
Because you are more likely to get COVID-19 from people and not food items, the best thing you can do is avoid going to places like the supermarket. Tap into your food stockpile and stay at home!
Even if it means eating up all that food in your pantry which you don’t like, stay home! If possible, get grocery delivery instead of going out.
If you have to go grocery shopping, follow these tips:
- Choose grocery stores which are taking precautions, such as limiting how many people can enter the store at one time and disinfecting carts after each use.
- Wear a mask. Better safe than sorry. Make sure you are following good practices like not touching the mask and only donning/removing it with clean hands. Here’s how to make a mask.
- Wear gloves while you shop. You can still get COVID-19 while wearing gloves, but you may remember not to touch your face if you are wearing gloves. You can remove the gloves before getting into your car so you don’t contaminate your steering wheel or other surfaces.
- Have a list: This will allow you to get in/out faster. Organize your list by where items in the store are located so you don’t have to double back.
- Wipe down shopping cart handles: Then put on your gloves or use hand sanitizer. To make your own, see how to make hand sanitizer.
- Don’t use your phone. No answering your phone. No grocery-list apps. It’s time to go back to good ol’ paper lists (which you can throw away promptly after shopping).
Important: Check with the store management before using bleach wipes on shopping carts! Some of the disinfectants they use are not compatible with bleach.
Bagging Up Groceries
Organize your groceries as you bag them up. This will make it easier to disinfect the groceries later on. Make sure these items get bagged separately:
- Produce: Produce gets washed, not disinfected. If you bag it all together, you can just dump it into your sink.
- “Quarantine” items: These are non-perishable items which you don’t need to use right away and will be setting aside for 72 hours instead of disinfecting.
- Meat: Keep these items together so you can disinfect them first. You don’t want them sitting on the counter for long periods while you disinfect other items.
- Fresh dairy: You’ll want to get to these after meat so it doesn’t go bad sitting on your counter.
Should You Disinfect Items As You Shop?
I’ve heard of some people spraying each item with disinfectant before they put it in their cart. I’d advise against this.
If you disinfect as you shop, you will have to spend a lot longer in the store – which means your contact time with people is greater. Plus, the cashier will have to touch the items at checkout, so you’d have to disinfect again anyway.
Loading Items into Your Car
Don’t try to disinfect your groceries before loading them into your vehicle. This will take too much time and it will be difficult to do it effectively. You also won’t be able to clean produce. It’s better to wait until you get home.
Follow these protocols:
- Keep your gloves on until you reach your car.
- When getting out your keys: Either remove your gloves or use hand sanitizer on your gloves. You don’t want to touch your keys with contaminated hands. Alternatively, you can touch your gloves with contaminated hands but disinfect them afterwards.
- Load the groceries. Preferably in boxes waiting in your vehicle trunk.
- Remove gloves or use hand sanitizer. Sanitize your keys if necessary too.
Removing your face mask: Remember to only remove a face mask with clean hands! You should sanitize your hands after removing the mask. Put the mask in a breathable bag. Do not touch for at least 3 days.
Set Up a Clean and Dirty Area in Your Home
When you unload your groceries, they will go in a designated “dirty” area. As you sanitize them, you will move them to the “clean” space.
- Use your porch or entryway. This way you won’t have to bring contaminated items into the home.
- Put items in boxes. This will make it easier to keep the clean/dirty groceries separated. Otherwise you’ll end up with items overflowing on your counter or floor.
- If using your counter, be sure to clean the surface before and after.
- Don’t forget about your shoes. Either disinfect the bottom of your shoes or change into clean shoes before entering your home.
- Keep pets, kids, etc. away from groceries until you are done.
- Make sure you set this up before you leave! All disinfecting supplies should be ready and waiting so you don’t have to go through your home gathering everything.
Disinfect Groceries and Put into Clean Area
Pour a bit of disinfectant into a plastic bowl. Dip a cloth into it and rub it on the grocery items. Make sure you get all sides of the item. When done, put in the “clean” box you set up before.
I personally don’t like spray disinfectants. Spray bottles release a shower of cleaning solution droplets to get into the air, which could be unsafe to breathe in. That’s why it’s better to dip a cloth into disinfectant and use this to rub down your groceries.
Ideally, you should wear gloves while disinfecting items; disinfectants are harsh on skin and can cause your skin to crack.
Food in Hard Packaging
Simply rub disinfectant on all sides of the packaging. For disinfectants to work, they need to remain in contact with the packaging for about a minute (it varies by disinfectant; see the FDA’s list).
This doesn’t mean you need to drench the food item though. Just be sure the packaging is slightly wet. Do not dry the packaging. Just put the food item into the clean area and let it air dry before putting it away.
Note that bleach is corrosive. If using for disinfecting canned goods, you’ll need to rinse them in water after you are done.
Coronaviruses can survive for long periods in the freezer. You’ll need to disinfect everything which is going into your freezer. Do frozen items before non-perishables (but after meat and dairy) so you can put them away before they start to melt. Remember to wash your hands before putting away the disinfected items.
Many products (like cereal, some cookies, etc.), are wrapped in plastic and then put in a cardboard box. Instead of disinfecting the cardboard, carefully open the box and dump the plastic package in the “clean” area. Leave the cardboard packaging in the dirty area for disposal.
You can also remove the packaging from items like bread or pasta. To do this, you’ll need to carefully open the packaging and dump the contents into a clean container. Then you set the packaging aside in the dirty area for disposal. Make sure you plan it out ahead of time so you have the containers waiting for you.
Flour in Paper Bags and Other Items which Can’t Be Disinfected
You can’t rub disinfectant on paper bags; it will leach into the contents and also ruin the packaging. For these items, you have two options:
- Put the item in “quarantine” for at least 24 hours or
- Transfer the contents to a clean container. Open the bag, dump the contents into the container, and then dispose of the packaging.
Don’t try to spray produce with disinfectant. Instead, put all produce in a clean box. You’ll carry this box to the sink for washing after you are done disinfecting the other grocery items. More on this later.
Since you should always should be cautious when handling meat, you probably don’t need to disinfect it. Just wash your hands as normal after handling the meat. If you are still concerned, you can remove raw meat from its packaging and transfer it to a clean container to go in your fridge.
You don’t have to throw away plastic shopping bags because of coronavirus. Nor do you have to stop using reusable shopping bags. Instead, put the shopping bags in your quarantine spot for 72 hours. Cloth shopping bags can be washed to disinfect.
Put Your Grocery Items Away
Now you can remove your gloves. If you didn’t wear gloves, either wash your hands at this point or use hand sanitizer. Then you can take the clean grocery items inside and put them away.
Disinfect Anything You Touched with Dirty Hands
It’s very difficult to disinfect your groceries without contact contamination occurring at some point. While it’s unlikely that you’ll get sick from this little bit of contamination, you can play it safe by disinfecting anything which you may have touched.
- The bottle of disinfectant
- Your hand sanitizer
- Door handles
- Light switches
Disinfecting produce against COVID-19 is much trickier than disinfecting packaged items. Luckily, the chances of getting sick from contaminated produce appears to be very low. Many experts recommend simply washing produce before you eat it, as you normally would.
If you do choose to disinfect your fruits and vegetables, here’s how it can be done safely.
- Set up your sink station. Make sure your sink is empty and clean. Have a clean box next to the sink. You’ll use this to hold the clean produce before you put it away.
- Carry produce next to the sink. If you have a double sink, then you can simply put all the produce in one side of the sink.
- Wash each piece of produce. Using just running water, gently rub all sides of the produce. You should spend at least 20 seconds on each piece of produce.
- Consider using hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is one of the few approved disinfectants which is safe on produce. You can spray it on produce and let it sit for 1 minute or soak produce in a hydrogen peroxide bath for at least 1 minute. To be effective, the hydrogen peroxide cannot be diluted to less than 0.5% strength. (source) After treating with hydrogen peroxide, rinse the produce.
- Set in the clean box. When done washing, put the cleaned produce into your box.
- Wash your hands. Before putting away the produce, be sure to wash your hands.
Keep in mind:
- Do not wash produce with soap: Fruits and vegetables are porous and can absorb the soap. This can cause health affects like diarrhea and vomiting! Don’t risk it. Use just plain water or hydrogen peroxide to disinfect produce.
- Veggie washes aren’t more effective than plain water. In some cases, the veggie wash might even leave harmful residues on your produce.
- Vinegar doesn’t kill COVID-19: Vinegar washes are effective at killing bacteria on produce. However, vinegar isn’t effective at killing coronavirus.
- Washing immediately can cause some produce to go bad. If you wash berries, mushrooms, and certain greens, for example, they will start going bad immediately. Either don’t wash these until you are ready to eat them or stop buying them fresh until COVID-19 is no longer a risk.
- Some produce can’t be washed ahead of time or it will start to go bad almost immediately. For example, berries and mushrooms typically won’t last more than a day after being washed. You can choose to avoid buying these items, eat the immediately, or take the risk of not washing them before putting them in your fridge.
Disinfecting Takeout and Food Delivery
Coronavirus doesn’t do well on food. Even if some trace amounts of coronavirus were on your delivery food, it’s a respiratory disease so it’s very unlikely you’d get it by eating contaminated food. However, the food packaging can be problematic.
To protect against COVID-19 when getting takeout or food delivery:
- Choose contact-less delivery services. If not possible, wear a mask while accepting food from the delivery person.
- Set up a “clean” and “dirty” area on your counter.
- Have plates/bowls waiting on the clean area.
- Put the food on the dirty area. Without touching the food, open the containers and dump the food onto the waiting plates.
- Discard the packaging.
- Wash your hands and disinfect the “dirty” area.
- Microwave the food. You can microwave the food to kill coronavirus. This step isn’t likely necessary but just an extra precaution.
- Enjoy your food