Food safety during lockdown: should I be sanitising packaged food and veggies?
Experts bust myths and share the do’s and don’ts
Never before have we been so acutely aware of all the surfaces our hands touch in a day. As the lockdown was announced, confusion grew regarding the do’s and don’ts on personal hygiene and more, with information (and fake news) slowly trickling down. Some of our biggest questions were around food safety.
It’s reasonable to be questioning every decision we make right now because we’re still learning about COVID-19. Our instinct to protect ourselves has us house-bound, leaving only to buy essentials.
What if those ‘essentials’ are also contaminated? I don’t know who is handling these products, or how many people have touched it.
What if someone sneezed or coughed on the instant noodle packet I’m holding right now? Could Maggi, the thing I love most, turn around and hurt me like this?
Dramatics aside, these contemplations on food safety are natural when there’s so much misinformation floating around us.
Best practices for food safety and grocery shopping
Do I need to wash fruit and vegetables with soap?
When I was young, I’d watch my mother immerse all fresh fruits and vegetables in an alluring magenta-hued liquid before storing them. Turns out what we referred to as ‘pinky’ is a potassium permanganate solution.
Dr Praveen Gupta of Fortis Memorial Research Institute in New Delhi concurs that the solution can be effective in keeping our fruits and vegetables germ-free during this time too. Experts say you should definitely not be washing your vegetables and fruits with soap.
“There is a lot of reasonable concern in society about washing vegetables and fruits. As per the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), there is no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 virus through food. But we should still wash them as we always would do,” says Dr Jinendra Jain, Internal Medicine Expert and Diabetes Specialist, Wockhardt Hospital.
He suggests washing them under cold running water for 20-30 seconds and patting them dry with a clean towel or paper towel.
“There are no recommendations to use detergents and soap. In fact, it may be harmful as these detergents may get absorbed by the food item,” he adds.
Donald Schaffner, a microbiologist and expert on food safety from Rutgers University, says that ingesting soap could lead to nausea and vomiting, even diarrhoea.
Jinal Patel, clinical nutritionist and dietitian, Apollo Spectra hospital, Mumbai, offers an alternative method using 1/2 cup of white vinegar and two cups of water. “Soak the greens in it for about five minutes, then rinse under clean water.”
She also suggests using a vegetable brush on produce with thick skin to brush away any hard-to-remove microbes.
Should I be disinfecting the packaged food?
You’ve stood in line, managed to pick up your dal, aata, some Wai Wai packets, and maybe even tinned tuna.
You suddenly remember reading the article about the virus staying active on different surfaces for different durations. Thoughts are racing through your head about possibly dunking everything in a bucket of phenyl.
Patel suggests wiping or washing all “items in cans, tins, bottles and packets before storing them to reduce possible virus content.” Alternatively, remove items from their disposable packets and store them in containers.
“According to recent researchers, use the ‘sterile technique’ which says keep the groceries out or in storage areas for 72 hours to allow the virus to become inactive,” she adds.
This, of course, would apply to non-perishables only if you choose to follow this method.
Jain and Schaffner believe that the best practice is to properly wash your hands (even if they’re turning into sandpaper) after you take the food out of the packet and sit down to eat.
“We should keep washing our hands while cooking food and handling the vessels. And most important, washing our hands before we eat is the best practice, even when we’re not in a pandemic,” says Jain.
Sanitise your kitchen area and use different chopping boards for vegetables, bread, meats and fish.
Patel says to keep following your basics – clean the fridge, the sink and counters, as you always did. “Don’t forget to clean countertops, and the areas where you kept the grocery bags, sanitise the surface thoroughly,”
Are there foods we should be avoiding?
No current studies have found evidence that the virus can spread through the food we consume.
Dr William Schaffner, from the department of infectious diseases, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine explains that even if someone has sneezed or coughed into your plate of butter pav bhaji, food enters the body through the throat.
The virus, on the other hand, seems to be latching onto cells in the upper reaches of the nose, “a place food doesn’t enter,” he explains. “Virus that finds its way into your gastrointestinal tract will be killed by the acid in your stomach.”
Can my reusable cloth bags carry the virus?
Plastic bags have started making a comeback as many cities and states around the world have started reversing their single-use plastic ban. The idea is that the virus could be carried around via reusable grocery bags.
While no evidence indicates that such transmission is possible, there is one that analysed the life span of the virus on materials like plastic (so you want to beware of plastic bags at stores too) and cardboard.
The study didn’t look at the materials reusable bags are made of, namely cotton and jute.
The best advice experts have it is to wash and properly dry your reusable bag after each use. Always wash your hands before and after a visit to the store and after you’re done storing groceries.
Are deliveries safe?
Short answer, yes. Most e-commerce, restaurants and delivery partners have started no-contact delivery options to comply with food safety recommendations. Your delivery items are left at an outside location for pick-up.
Since there is no current evidence that supports the transmission of the virus through food, it could possibly live on the packed surface for up to 9 days. Your best bet is to dispose of the containers. Store the food items in your own boxes, and always remember to wash your hands for 20-30 seconds afterwards.
Even in those brief seconds of you walking from your apartment to the pickup spot, try not to touch your face after you’ve picked up your food. That’s because you’re more likely to pick up something from communal surfaces like handrails, elevator buttons, door handles, even money.
When it comes to cooked foods, as long as the restaurant is hygienic, it’s unlikely you’ll fall sick (at least of COVID-19).
And remember to tip them well. These are essential service providers working on the front lines to make our lives a little easier.