There have been a lot of mixed messages swirling around the internet about how groceries should be handled, including some potentially dangerous recommendations. Here are the safety guidelines put together by Toby Amidor, R.D., a registered dietitian and a food safety expert, to follow when at the store and once you get home.
At the Store:
- Stay home if you’re sick: If you’re showing any symptoms of coronavirus or another illness, or caring for someone who is sick, then stay home. Ask a friend or neighbor to go food shopping for you, order online, or see if your local market delivers.
- Buy what you need: There are no nationwide shortages on food, according to the FDA. That said, you may find that certain foods at your supermarket are temporarily low before they can restock. Food production and manufacturing are done throughout the country and, currently, there are no major disruptions reported in the supply chain. The FDA is closely monitoring our food supply chain by being in regular contact with food manufacturers and grocery stores. As such, there’s no need to stockpile food for months; only purchase enough food for a week or two. Fresh produce and dairy tend to last shorter periods of time, so compliment them with frozen and canned produce and shelf-stable milk. (See: The Best Staple Foods to Keep In Your Kitchen At All Times)
- Keep a safe distance: Go to the grocery store when there are fewer people in the store and keep six feet away from other shoppers and store clerks.
- Sanitize shopping carts: Many stores provide sanitizing wipes as you enter the store (or you can bring your own). Use them immediately to wipe down the handles of the cart before using it.
- Sanitize hands before handing produce: Consider using PURE’s Skin Defense, before and after selecting produce items and avoid touching multiple produce items when making selections.
- Make wise decisions when choosing produce: Choose produce that’s not bruised or damaged, according to the FDA. When buying pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce (think: baby spinach), choose only those that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice. When you’re packing fresh fruit and vegetables at the checkout counter, keep them in a separate bag from raw meat, poultry, and seafood. (These recs stand even when COVID-19 isn’t a concern.)
- Sanitize hands after paying: Whether you’re using the credit card machine or using self-checkout, both get touched a lot by human hands. Although this is an area that local retailers are cleaning more frequently, it’s not a bad idea to sanitize your hands after touching it.
- Minimize bringing objects and purses into stores: The fewer items that come into contact with humans in public areas, the better. That means you should minimize touching your phone (consider writing your shopping list on an old-fashioned piece of paper), and only bring essential items into the store only essential items (like your credit card, shopping list, and keys). Sanitize everything before heading home.
For Home Deliveries:
- Ask for curbside drop off: In order to avoid human interaction, ask the delivery person to leave the groceries outside your front door or other location of your choosing outside of your house.
- Use your own pen: If you must sign for the delivery (though many places have forgone this step), then make sure to use your own pen and have the delivery person leave the slip on the packages and not hand it to you.
- Tip your delivery people. Remember, delivery folks are at the front lines delivering to many people (some who may not be able to leave their homes) so don’t forget to tip them. You can often ask to leave the tip on the credit card when you pay for the groceries upfront—but you can also leave cash in an envelope outside, or drop it on your doorstep when you see them. Just remember to stay 6 feet away, and don’t hand it directly to the person.
- Wash your hands properly: Once you’re home from the market or have handled delivered food or food packages, the first thing you should do is wash your hands using soap and water, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. You should also wash your hands after removing food from any packaging.
- Clean and sanitize touch points: Any place where people touch often (like door handles or doorbells) should be cleaned and sanitized frequently.
- Wash reusable grocery bags: If you use reusable grocery bags, toss them in the wash or wash them with soap and water between uses.
- To wipe or not to wipe food packages: COVID-19 can live on cardboard surfaces for up to 24 hours; however, the USDA says that there’s no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of the virus. If it does make you feel safer, feel free to do so, just make sure the sanitizing wipes or cleaner you’re using doesn’t come into contact with the food. (If it does, it can potentially make you sick from ingesting the chemicals.)
- Put away your groceries: You do not want to leave your groceries outside, in your trunk, or in the garage for more than two hours (or 1 hour if it is higher than 90°F outside) as that can lead to food-borne illness, especially with foods like dairy, raw meats and poultry, and others that need to be refrigerated or frozen. Those should be put away immediately.
- Wash and prepare produce: You should not use soap, detergent, chlorine, or bleach to wash produce. These are all cleaners that are not meant to touch food and can ultimately get you sick. (Yes, even if you rinse really well; just the residue of these cleaning items can have negative effects if ingested.) The FDA recommends washing your hands properly with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce. Cut off any damaged or bruised areas before eating or handling. Gently rub the produce while holding under plain running water. Use a clean vegetable brush to clean firm produce like melons or potatoes. Be sure to rinse produce before you peel it, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife or peeler onto the fruit or vegetable. Dry produce with a paper towel or clean cloth to reduce bacteria that may be present. If you’re washing cabbage or lettuce, remove the outermost leaves. In addition, you don’t need to wash produce labeled “ready-to-eat,” “washed,” or “triple washed” as you have more of a chance of contaminating it in your own home. (This is a long-time recommendation from the FDA. If you’ve been washing this kind of produce anyway, now is the perfect time to stop.)
- Clean and disinfect your kitchen: Regularly clean and disinfect countertops and surfaces in your kitchen and dining area.
Always Follow the 4 Key Steps to Food Safety
These safety tips should always be followed (COVID-19 or not) to protect against foodborne illness.
- Clean surfaces and your hands before and after handling food.
- Separate raw and ready-to-eat foods.
- Cook foods to proper minimum internal temperatures.
- Chill foods in the refrigerator or freezer.
Toby Amidor, R.D., is a registered dietitian and a food safety expert. She has taught food safety at The Art Institute of New York City culinary school since 1999 and at Teachers College, Columbia University for a decade