Coronavirus tips: How to clean your groceries and stay safe when food shopping

Sarah Young
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With lockdown conditions imposed on the UK, the majority of the nation’s daily routines have come to halt with activities such as food shopping being kept to a bare minimum.

Some of the biggest public concerns surrounding the outbreak so far have been related to supermarkets, from whether essential groceries and household items will remain in good supply to how to stay safe while we shop.

By now, people have become used to taking precautions such as washing their hands regularly and practising safe social distancing but with online delivery slots fully booked for weeks ahead, venturing out to the shop is a necessity.

Supermarkets are notoriously busy places that are filled with products touched by a number of people and while retailers are doing their best to employ measures to help shoppers keep their distance from one another, customers are left wondering what the risk of exposure to the virus is when doing their shopping.

Here is everything you need to know about grocery shopping amid the outbreak.

Does coronavirus live on food?

According to the government’s food safety website, it is “very unlikely” that you can catch coronavirus from food.

“COVID-19 is a respiratory illness. It is not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging”, the guidelines read.

Stephen Baker, a professor from the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge, told the PA news agency that while it is possible the virus could survive on food as it would do on other surfaces, it soon dies off.

“There is no reason to think the virus would be able to survive on food longer than any other surface,” Baker said, adding that the risk posed by ingesting food contaminated with small amounts of the virus would be “really low”.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) adds that cooking food at the right temperature and for the correct length of time will ensure that any harmful bacteria are killed.

It also reminds people to wash their hands before preparing, cooking or eating food, where possible with warm soapy water and ensuring equipment and surfaces are clean to stop harmful bacteria from spreading onto food.

How much of a risk does packaging pose?

According to the World Health Organisation, the risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also very low.

Professor Baker agrees, adding that while the risk is “not zero” when it comes to supermarket and home food deliveries, it is “relatively minor”.

“Things that are in packages, I would maintain a degree of common sense with the view that they are unlikely to make anybody sick”.

Should you clean your food and/or packaging?

Despite the low risk of contamination, if you feel particularly anxious about the possibility of the virus spreading on food packaging you can use antibacterial wipes or disinfectant spray before storing them away in your cupboards or fridge.

Speaking to the BBC, Professor Sally Bloomfield from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explained that if people are concerned they can either store products for 72 hours before using them or “spray and wipe plastic or glass containers with bleach [that is carefully diluted as directed on the bottle]”.

When it comes to fresh produce, such as fruits and vegetables, do not use products containing any chemicals to clean them.

“For unwrapped fresh goods, which could have been handled by anyone, wash thoroughly under running water and leave to dry,” Bloomfield adds.

The recommendations are in line with advice from the NHS which advises people to wash all fruit and vegetables before eating them to ensure they are clean and safe to consume.

“Washing will help remove bacteria from the surface of fruit and vegetables,” the NHS states.

“When you wash vegetables, wash them under a running tap and rub them under water, for example in a bowl of fresh water. Start with the least soiled items first and give each of them a final rinse. Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables can also remove bacteria.”

It is also important to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water as soon as you get home and after handling any packaging.

What precautions should you take at the supermarket?

Visiting supermarkets does pose some risk as you are mixing with other members of the public.

In this case, it is important to adhere to the government’s guidelines on social distancing by ensuring that you keep at least two metres from others. This advice applies to both inside the store and in the external public area where you may need to queue.

Supermarkets across the UK have already implemented a series of measures to ensure customers stay safe while shopping including regulating the number of people that can enter at any time, using floor markings at till points, making regular announcements and placing plexiglass barriers at tills.

Customers can also choose to offset any additional risk by washing their hands before and after visiting the supermarket, avoiding touching their faces after handling shopping trollies, baskets, packages and produce, and using contactless payment methods.

Many people also choose to wear gloves while they shop, however it is important to note that doing so does not stop you from touching trolley handles and then touching your face, which could transmit the virus.

How safe are home deliveries?

Slot availability permitting, a home delivery is considered to be less risky than a trip to a supermarket as you will avoid coming into contact with other shoppers.

A number of supermarkets are now also offering contactless deliveries – meaning your shopping is left in a safe place, such as a porch, for you to collect once the driver has left.

If this is not an option, Professor Baker says it is important to remember social distancing when receiving the delivery by maintaining a distance of two metres between yourself and the driver.

Is it safe to order takeaways?

While restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars have been ordered to shut during lockdown, food deliveries and takeaways are still allowed.

The government also said that “planning regulation will be changed” so that restaurants, cafes and pubs that do not currently offer delivery and takeaway can start doing so.

But, just how safe is it to order food that is prepared elsewhere?

The FSA has reminded outlets to adhere to its Food Safety Management System (FSMS), which includes guidelines on stressing the importance of employees frequently cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, washing their hands and practicing good hygiene in food preparation and handling areas.

These procedures should mean that there is minimal risk from a freshly cooked takeaway meal.

For those concerned about takeaway packaging, Professor Bloomfield advises “emptying the contents [into a clean dish], disposing of the packaging into a refuse bag and washing your hands thoroughly before you eat”.

“Take food out of a container with a spoon and eat it with a knife and fork – not your fingers,” she adds.

A number of delivery services, including Deliveroo, JustEat and Uber Eats, now also offer contact-free delivery which removes the need for direct contact for both parties.

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