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Do We Really Need to Sanitize Our Groceries?

To scrub or not to scrub, that is the question.

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The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has us all understandably on edge. We’re constantly sanitizing pretty much everything we touch, but do we really need to disinfect our groceries before we put them away?

One suggestion that gained a lot of traction on social media came from a doctor in Michigan claiming that we should leave our groceries outside for a few days before putting them in our fridges and cupboards. “This sounds like a recipe for disaster, or at the very least spoiled food,” Donald Schaffner, a microbiologist and expert on food safety from Rutgers University, explains on ScienceAlert.

Although Schaffner dismisses the advice to keep groceries outside as “patently ridiculous,” he admits there’s a “nugget of truth” to be found in it. “We know that the virus is slowly inactivated at room temperature, with a half-life of about eight hours,” he writes. “But this advice presumes that all groceries are contaminated, and that simply touching the groceries will make you sick, neither of which are true.” The FDA backs him up saying there is “no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

Schaffner also points out that we shouldn’t be scrubbing any fresh produce with disinfectants or soap. That can lead to nasty symptoms (nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea) caused by ingesting those cleansers. Fruit and veggies should still just be rinsed in regular cold water before eating. 

Basically, it all boils down to the fact that while it probably won’t hurt to give our (non-produce) groceries a quick wipe down with disinfectant, it isn’t really necessary right now. Instead, Schnaffner recommends just washing our hands before and after prepping food. “And guess what,” he adds. “Washing your hands before you eat is a best practice even when we’re not in a pandemic!” We can’t argue with that.

According to the CDC, the more important way to protect ourselves when it comes groceries is by wearing a mask while at stores or picking up a delivery. (Click here for a guide on sewing a a cloth mask at home.) We should also be doing our best to maintain the 6-foot social distancing measurement when possible and only going outside when it’s absolutely essential.

It’s a strange and scary time right now, but we can all get through this with a little extra patience and perseverance.

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