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How to Keep Your Kitchen Safe for Cooking During the Pandemic

aka: Do I really have to wash my groceries?

A pair of hands in kitchen gloves wipes down a counter. Shutterstock

COVID-19 has made every trip to the grocery store or takeout order a test of infectious-disease expertise. Even after people get food into their home, where social distancing is no longer a concern, more challenges await. Everyday actions in the kitchen — stocking the pantry, washing produce, preparing meals — all involve opportunities to transmit the novel coronavirus.

The virus’s primary mode of transmission is person to person. The CDC, FDA, and USDA have all said they have seen no evidence of foodborne transmission. But to avoid bringing the novel coronavirus home from the store or sickening a family member or roommate, home cooks can break the chain of transmission by following simple kitchen-safety practices.

Health authorities have stuck by the “4 Steps of Food Safety” for decades: Clean (wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces often); separate (separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other groceries); cook (to safe temperatures); and chill (refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours). Those rules still hold up during the COVID-19 pandemic, just with a few added steps and specifications.

Note: All interviews for this article were conducted on April 2 and 3. Check the FDA and CDC for the latest safety recommendations.

Washing Your Hands Often

Preparing a clean kitchen begins the moment you arrive home from a trip to the store or receive a delivery of groceries. Bring the bags in, then immediately wash your hands. If you don’t regularly use hand sanitizer in your car after visiting the store, you may even want to go inside to wash your hands before returning to your car to unload grocery bags.

“Unless you’ve inhaled coronavirus and you’re bringing it into your house that way, probably the next most likely way that you’re bringing coronavirus into your house is on your hands from something you’ve touched,” says Don Schaffner, a professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University.

This is one of many moments when Schaffner recommends washing your hands (so he also suggests picking up a nice hand lotion). “A good rule of thumb is [wash your hands] every time you change tasks or you transition between areas,” he says. “So coming into your house, that’s a transition. Putting away groceries, that’s a transition.”

Follow CDC instructions on handwashing, and be sure to wash when you enter the house; after handling any potentially contaminated items; before, during, and after preparing food; before eating; and when you clean the kitchen.

Unpacking and Storing

Dismantling groceries can feel like a high-pressure situation, but the basic steps are fairly straightforward. If you can, place grocery bags on the floor rather than the counter. Put away groceries as you normally would, starting with refrigerated items. End by washing your hands and sanitizing the entire area, especially countertops that you used in the process.

Dana Hunnes, adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, suggests a more stringent regiment. She works with transplant patients, following the USDA’s strictest measures on food safety meant to safeguard people with compromised immune systems.

Hunnes suggests washing reusable cloth bags in the laundry in hot water after unpacking. Disposable bags, she says, should be thrown away or wiped down with alcohol wipes. “These bags are not safe to ignore as the virus can likely survive on them for several days,” she adds. While not all experts thought it was entirely necessary to concentrate on shopping bags, none specifically objected to the practice, so go ahead and clean them if you are concerned.

Hunnes also cites evidence that the novel coronavirus can survive on cardboard for 24 hours and on plastic for 72 hours, so it’s conceivable that a sick shopper or worker at the grocery store could leave the virus on a food package that you could then bring home. She says everyone should sanitize the outside of all food packaging before storing it.

But professor Benjamin Chapman, food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, takes issue with that recommendation. “I think it’s silly for a variety of reasons,” he says. “We don’t have any indication that food packaging is a risk factor for getting COVID-19. It’s not to say someone couldn’t deposit the virus onto my food packaging. That’s certainly possible. It’s just very, very unlikely.”

Rather than sanitize packaging, Chapman instead suggests simply washing your hands after handling packages and before eating. “The virus itself is not going to move. It can’t jump between packages. The way it moves is my hands,” he explains. Chapman worries about the supply of sanitizer and argues people should reserve it for situations where it is entirely vital, like if a symptomatic family member needs to be isolated in the house.

Hunnes also points to a process popularized by family physician Jeffrey VanWingen, whose sterilization tutorial has racked up 25 million views on YouTube. Hunnes and VanWingen suggest creating two zones in the kitchen — a dirty area for collecting groceries, and a sanitized area where you can place items as you clean them individually — then sanitize the dirty area at the end.

Martin Wiedmann, a professor in food safety at Cornell University, worries that people may break common rules of food safety while trying to follow the two-step sanitization process. “Not only is it overkill, it’s likely to have negative effects,” he says. Wiedmann is concerned people will forget to wash their hands between each task, potentially cross-contaminating between items like raw meat and produce. The process may also delay them from refrigerating items, breaking the cold chain, or people may accidentally get sanitizer in their food.

VanWingen also helped popularize the idea of leaving nonperishable foods outside or in a garage for three days in order to kill off the virus before bringing items into the kitchen. Chapman believes this is an unnecessary risk too. “If I’m leaving that food there, I could expose it to pests,” he says. “My garage or doorstep is not built for food storage. All of these other things could happen now because of something that is not identified as a risk factor.”

Cleaning Up

You should routinely scrub down kitchen surfaces like counters, the refrigerator, and the sink after putting away groceries, before and after cooking, and at the end of the day. Be sure to use fresh cutting boards, clean dishes in a dishwasher if you can, and give your dining table a once-over before sitting down to a meal.

The CDC suggests a two-step process: cleaning to remove germs and dirt, then disinfecting to kill remaining germs. Hunnes says when you scrub with soap, “The surfactants in soaps break through the lipid layer of the virus,” and she recommends following that with alcohol wipes that are at least 60 percent alcohol. The EPA also provides a list of disinfectants that meet the agency’s standards for use against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Be sure to follow instructions on cleaning products and don’t experiment with multiple products. “The whole idea of two sanitizers are better than one? Not true,” Wiedmann says. “If you mix two chemicals that are not meant to be together, bad things happen. You can produce gases. You can get burns on your skin. There are dangers with these things.”

Washing Produce

Loose produce might be handled by countless people in the grocery store before you get it home, so it’s important to wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly — just as it always has been. Barbara Kowalcyk, assistant professor of food safety and public health at the Ohio State University, explains that water creates friction to remove bacteria from the surface. After washing items in running water, she suggests drying them with a paper towel to increase that friction even more. But she’s cautious about dishcloths, sponges, and vegetable scrubbers on produce, which can cross-contaminate between items if you’re not careful. Kowalcyk recommends swapping out dishcloths and sponges every two hours (if you can’t remember how long it’s been, err on the side of caution by replacing it), and switching vegetable scrubbers between tasks.

Most experts agree you shouldn’t wash produce in soapy water. While soap is excellent at breaking down the virus’s defenses, it is not designed for use on food. Schaffner explains, “The USDA and FDA don’t recommend soap. If you ingest soap it could cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.” (VanWingen, who originally helped spread the use of soap through his PSA, has since corrected that recommendation, advising people not to use soap on produce.) Cleaning products could cause even more damage if ingested.

Also, avoid washing items ahead of time and putting them back in the fridge. “Any time you add water to the situation that can contribute to pathogen growth,” Kowalcyk says. “It’s recommended that you not wash fruits and vegetables until you’re ready to consume them.”

Preparing a Meal

When preparing food, be sure to follow standard FDA guidelines to the letter. Schaffner argues regular food safety — like proper cooking temperatures or sanitation while handling raw meat — is even more important during a pandemic, since a trip to the hospital because of E. coli or salmonella could expose you to COVID-19 too.

It may be tempting to suit up with disposable gloves or a mask before cooking, but that may do more damage than good. “I would not suggest wearing disposable gloves if food has been properly sanitized,” Hunnes says. “Health care workers need all the gloves and PPE they can get, and using disposable gloves for this purpose is unnecessary.” She has personally noticed people make more mistakes when wearing gloves than if they had used their bare hands and washed frequently.

As long as you follow handwashing and sanitizing routines, food itself is not a threat. “There are some properties of the organism that make it very, very unlikely to impossible that it’s transmitted by food,” Wiedmann says. The novel coronavirus is an “enveloped” virus, meaning it’s surrounded by a lipid-fat layer, which is easily broken down by stomach acid and bile salts during digestion. “All of the viruses we know that are foodborne illnesses are non-enveloped,” Wiedmann adds. “They have a protein layer that is a lot hardier so they’re much more protected through those [digestive] environments.”

Getting Your Household on the Same Page

No matter how you choose to keep your kitchen clean, make sure your family is on the same page. For example, Chapman explains that handwashing in place of sterilizing food packages only works if everyone in the house knows to wash their hands after handling items.

Hunnes argues that elderly or immunocompromised family members, for example, should be especially cautious around the kitchen. She suggests keeping these people away while unpacking groceries or cooking, and delivering food to them in sanitized containers. If vulnerable adults want to use the kitchen themselves, she adds, “They should only cook in a sanitized environment with items that have already been pre-cleaned.”

Chapman says that people living with compromised immune systems likely already have advice from their doctors about food safety, which should help protect them from the novel coronavirus too.

If you’re cooking for a symptomatic family member or roommate self-isolating in the house, exert extreme caution. “If the person is mobile, it is recommended to leave the food outside their door and walk away,” Hunnes says. “Then you should sanitize everything in the dishwasher after they are done eating and wash your hands.” If the person isn’t mobile, Hunnes says they should wear a mask as you enter the room to deliver food.

Given that the novel coronavirus isn’t foodborne and risk can be managed by constant handwashing and disinfecting, the best way to ensure you cook safely for yourself and your family may be to stop stressing so much about every little thing. “If you try to pay attention to too many things, we don’t pay attention to the essential things,” Wiedmann says. “The basics — social distancing, wash your hands, minimize how often you touch your face — that’s the important stuff.”

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