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How to Handle Food Safely During the COVID-19 Outbreak
washing lettuce

With so many questions about what’s safe and what’s not when it comes to COVID-19, it’s natural to worry about food. The virus is not spread through food but instead, carried from person to person when somebody sneezes or coughs (and tiny droplets travel up to six feet). But there are still things you can and should do around eating and shopping to protect yourself:

Be extra-vigilant about a clean kitchen. Wash your hands (for at least 20 seconds) anytime you enter your kitchen to prep or get food. Regularly clean countertops and handles to your cabinets, refrigerator, and sink clean with household disinfectant, advises Tamika Sims, PhD, of the International Food Information Council.

Wash your produce well. This is something you should always be doing of course, but it’s even more important now. Even if your produce is organic or you won’t be eating the skin (like melons or avocados), rinse it under running water. Unless it’s something delicate such as berries, use your hands or a soft brush to rub the surface while rinsing. Don’t use soap on produce, since some of it can remain on the surface and be eaten.

Get groceries safely. If possible, shop when there are fewer people in the store and try to keep a six-foot distance from other shoppers – or order for delivery or curb-side pickup. For home delivery, ask the delivery person to leave the groceries in a safe spot instead of interacting. (And it goes without saying, but if you’re sick, stay out of stores to protect everyone.) You can also reduce the number of trips you have to make to the store by buying things that last longer, such as canned and frozen foods, and shelf-stable foods like pasta and rice.

When you do go to the store, wipe down the shopping cart handle with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands well when you return. Your local retailer is likely cleaning more frequently (another reason, besides restocking, why many stores have reduced hours). They’ve also been asked to regularly sanitize places customers touch, like screens, door handles, and carts, says Hilary Thesmar, PhD, Chief Food & Product Safety Officer for FMI, which represents food retailers.

What about wiping off food packages when you get home? It’s true that the virus can live on cardboard surfaces for up to 24 hours, yet according to the USDA, “currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19”. But if wiping down packages gives you more peace of mind, that’s okay – just be sure you aren’t getting that cleaner into the actual food or beverages since those substances shouldn’t be ingested, says Sims.

Take extra steps with take-out. It’s not safe to gather together in restaurants right now, but getting take-out is fine (and a great way to support local businesses). As with any person-to-person contact now, stay at a safe distance if you can and wash hands after interacting. Once you get home, transfer the food onto a plate, throw away the package, then wash your hands before eating. Though it’s likely not necessary, you can take also microwave your food to steaming to help kill germs.

Be smart about stockpiled food. There’s no need to hoard food right now. Even though some stores have low inventory on certain items, the food supply chain is still strong, says Thesmar. That said, if you’ve stocked up to reduce grocery trips, it’s important to keep that food safe. According to the FDA, you should freeze fresh meat within 3-5 days (and poultry within 1-2 days) if you’re not using it. It will last up to a year that way. Eggs are good for 3-5 weeks in the fridge. Arrange your fridge so the items that should be used first are front and center. You’ll avoid food waste that way – and wasted money too.

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Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Registered dietitian

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is an Advisor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a "no-judgments" zone all about feeding families.

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