The Truth About What Experts Are Saying About Sanitizing Grocery Items

Hygiene is your friend in the best of times. So, hopefully Mr. Burns had sanitizer on hand after he scolded one of his captive monkeys for typing "the blurst of times." Because he totally touched the paper that monkey was using, and stereotypically speaking, monkeys chuck poop like the dickens. 

In any case, now that the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the world into the blurst of times, sanitizing surfaces seems more paramount than ever. But what about the surfaces that go in your mouth? Should you Lysol the crap out of that can of pork brains in milk gravy, before you open that sucker up and chow down? With the fate of your immune system at stake, should you bathe your pack of steak in Purell, before plopping it in the fridge? These days, when grocery shopping, those are the questions everyone must ask themselves ... those, and the question of who the hell thought pig brain in a can was an appetizing idea? 

However, it would be just peachy if instead of just asking yourself, you could ask experts about whether to bleach your peach before you eat it (obviously, you shouldn't actually eat bleach). Luckily, some of them have already weighed in on these weightiest of matters. Minus the pork brains, of course.

One professor says skip the sanitizer

WBUR consulted Rutgers University professor Don Schaffner, who teaches food microbiology, and he said, "My recommendation is that you don't need to sanitize your groceries. Again, a best practice is after you come into your house, it would be a really good time to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. After you've put your groceries away, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer one more time. And then thirdly, again, before you sit down to eat, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer." Speaking to USA Today, Schaffner stated his belief that you probably won't get the virus transmitted to you via food. So, rather than trying to find a nontoxic way to purge the germs from that scrumptious-looking cookie at the bakery, he advises that you just wash your hands before eating. With fresh fruits and vegetables, he recommends simply rinsing them with water to remove the typical dirt and insects that might tag along, but not using soap or detergent.

The bigger worry, as it happens, is the fellow customer who might be coughing and sneezing into the air you share. Occasionally, a customer will spread it intentionally. NBC affiliate WCYB 5 reports that Pennsylvania resident Margaret Cirko was arrested and charged with criminal mischief, terrorist threats, and threats to use a "biological agent" after she maliciously coughed on $35,000 worth of produce, effectively turning those groceries into gross-eries. The store had to destroy all of it.

A doctor's second opinion

Even with Schaffner's assurances, it would have been nice if someone had asked him to explain how experts could readily conclude that someone afflicted with COVID-19 didn't catch it from food packaging if the person and food surfaces weren't tested before coming into physical contact with each other. After all, once the virus is present in the person and on groceries they've touched, wouldn't the directionality of transmission be difficult if not impossible to disentangle?

For those who might harbor such concerns, a Michigan physician offers a second opinion. The Oregonian reports that Dr. Jeffery VanWingen made a video advising grocery shoppers to take extra steps to keep their food from making them sick. VanWingen recommends wiping down carts, limiting the number of food items you touch by coming to the store with a specific list in mind, and sterilizing appropriate packing at home. That means sanitizing plastic packages and cans. He also suggests removing bread from the bag and placing it in a sterile container and tossing the outer boxes for cereal and crackers. Shopping bags also belong in the trash bin, says VanWingen. At home, food storage areas ought to be kept sterile as well.

A bit of extra caution probably wouldn't hurt

As the days and weeks drag on, like a snail traveling through molasses, experts learn more and more about the microscopic menace behind the current pandemic. Whereas the CDC initially stated that the novel coronavirus primarily spread through cough and sneezing across distances of up to six feet, according to KHOU, in early April, experts warned that talking or breathing may spray viral droplets that linger in the air and infect passersby. If a COVID-19 sufferer breathes on a grocery store item shortly before you touch it, might that also pose a significant risk of transmission?

We don't know, but The New England Journal of Medicine highlights the possibility of the novel coronavirus surviving for hours or days on certain surfaces such as plastic or cardboard. The virus might last on plastic for up to 72 hours (three days) while only persisting on cardboard for 24. Presumably, that could bode ill for recently exposed boxes of cereal or plastic-wrapped meats. The concern isn't the food, per se, but cross-surface contamination via contaminated packaging. 

The lingering uncertainty about such scenarios might make it wiser to err on the side of caution, and adopt extra measures such as removing bags and boxes your groceries (or food deliveries) came in, cooking food thoroughly, and keeping your hands and home clean.