- The New York Times California Today newsletter recently featured an expert who advised readers to sanitize their groceries to minimize the risk of coronavirus infection.
- The advice included wiping down bags and packages with sanitizer as well as spraying fruits and vegetables with a diluted bleach solution and letting them air dry.
- Other experts advise against putting bleach on anything you're going to eat, however, and say washing with warm water works just as well with fewer potential risks.
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In a recent New York Times California Today newsletter, a food safety expert suggested that Californians facing "shelter in place" orders should take extra precautions when making essential trips to the grocery store. This advice include tips on how to sanitize grocery items, including using a very diluted bleach solution (one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water) to mist produce, and then let it air dry before eating.
Other experts say this isn't necessary, and may not even be safe.
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.
"Yes, there can be a virus transfer risk if someone carrying the virus sneezes onto your produce and within hours you touch it and then immediately eat it — but the chances of this occurring are slim," Sims, who has a doctorate in virology and immunology, told Insider via email.
Here's what you should do instead, according to Sims and other experts.
Bleach has health risks of its own
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.
Canned goods or items in plastic or glass containers can also be rinsed with warm water as a precaution (although again, it's not clear that these kinds of objects are a major threat of contagion).
You could use disinfecting wipes if you have them, too. However, Sims noted any kind of chemical cleaning agent should be used with caution to make sure it doesn't accidentally end up in your food.
"If a package is semipermeable or if you otherwise get the chemical mixed into your food, you could be introducing a new health risk," Sims said.
The biggest risk at supermarkets (and other public spaces) is crowds of people
The most likely cause of a coronavirus infection, according to experts, is person-to-person transmission, which is why social distancing is so important for prevention.
That means grocery stores and markets could potentially pose a risk, particularly if they're full of large crowds of people in close quarters, like a check-out line.
The best way to protect yourself is to shop during non-peak hours if possible, stay a safe distance (at least six feet) from other shoppers, and avoid touching your face, Sims said.
Remember to also wash your hands thoroughly and often, especially after returning home from a shopping trip.
"The best thing to do is to keep your hands clean — wash them before you handle all foods and be sure they are clean before you eat," Sims said. "Also be sure to keep all food contact surfaces (dinnerware, prepping tools, kitchen surfaces, etc.) clean too."
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