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Can you get COVID-19 from food and groceries?

May 12, 2020

Many people are worried about the possibility of contracting COVID-19 through items brought into their home, like food, food packaging, and even mail and online shopping parcels. Extra precautions are being taken, like letting boxes and bags sit for a few hours before putting them away or wiping down packages with antibacterial wipes.

Here, we break down the facts of how to handle food and what precautions are necessary.

Can COVID-19 be transmitted through food or food packaging?

Luckily, the odds of contracting COVID-19 from a bag of chips, a box of cereal, or a bunch of bananas are incredibly low. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spread primarily through aerosol droplets from when someone coughs or sneezes around you and it gets into your nose or mouth and spreads to your lungs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is currently no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or other inanimate objects.

Grocery items sitting on a shelf at the store do not pose a health threat unless someone has just actively sneezed or coughed on or in close proximity to them.

However, you should be cautious when touching frequently shared surfaces like grocery carts, door handles, or buttons on the credit card machine. Unlike surfaces in your home, which are only used by members of your household, public surfaces can spread bacteria and germs more quickly.

Being in the grocery store among other potentially sick people is more risky than touching the groceries themselves. Try to avoid crowds and don’t take longer in the store than you need to. In Massachusetts, face masks are now required in public places.

Of course, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly once you return home from the grocery store or any other public market or shopping space where you may have touched shared surfaces.

Should I wipe down my groceries?

Since risk from handling groceries and other packaging is considered low, it is not necessary to clean off your groceries – especially if you follow handwashing guidelines.

Still, it is technically possible that objects can carry the virus. For example, a New England Journal of Medicine study found that – under ideal conditions – the virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on hard metal surfaces and plastic for up to three days.

If you feel more comfortable wiping down groceries with antibacterial wipes once you bring them home, feel free to do so. Keep in mind that some packaging is porous, and be careful to avoid getting any disinfectant on your food.

Do not use soap or disinfectant directly on produce (fruits and vegetables), as this could be harmful if ingested. Follow these tips from the FDA for washing produce.

Above all, even if you choose not to wipe down your groceries, remember the importance of washing your hands and not touching your face after you go to the grocery store or any other public place where it may be difficult to practice social distancing.

Tips on getting take-out food

Don’t be afraid to order takeout from your favorite local restaurants!

"From what we know currently about the virus, it's safe to eat food prepared at restaurants so long as you take the proper precautions — in particular handwashing," says Don Schaffner, a notable professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in quantitative microbial risk assessment, predictive food microbiology, hand-washing, and cross-contamination.

Many restaurants, fast food chains, and delivery companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash are offering “contactless” options during pickup and delivery.

When you bring outside meals into the house, it is best to remove the food from its bags, packaging, or containers and place on clean dishware. Throw away all wrappings and wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water before you eat.

Food safety guidelines

Grocery stores, restaurants, and food suppliers are all doing their best to comply with the most recent guidelines provided by the CDC and FDA.

In a recent article by the Washington Post, William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said “People should wash their hands regularly, and in particular, when they’re preparing food.”

Many restaurant workers are provided protective equipment like disposable gloves and face masks and are advised to stay home if they feel sick.

If anything, food safety has been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic and you can feel confident that the foods you’re consuming are safe and will not give you the virus.