We spoke to Angela Rasmussen, Ph.D., a virologist from Columbia University, and Tania Elliott, MD, clinical instructor of allergy and immunology at New York University, about a few of the biggest questions we have when it comes to shopping for and handling food. Rasmussen emphasizes that scientists don’t have all the answers about the novel coronavirus, as the situation is still evolving, but that there are a lot of ways you can minimize risk while still being able to safely cook your favorite dishes or eat food from your neighborhood restaurants. Here’s what they had to say.
I’m trying to do less grocery-store trips but buy more each visit. Is there a way of safely using carts at the grocery store?
Should I quarantine my nonperishable groceries, like tea boxes and canned beans, for a few days before bringing them into my cabinets?
AR: The risk of transmission from contaminated surfaces is not really known. It can happen. But in my personal opinion, the majority of transmission is going to happen from direct exposure to respiratory droplets produced by other people. We don’t know how often it is that you are going to be touching groceries that have virus on them and then touching your face, and how often transmission occurs like that, but it is probably not the majority of transmission. I am not quarantining my stuff or wiping stuff down. I instead am trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, and then after I do put away my groceries, I wash my hands.
Dr. Tania Elliott: Wait three days before touching the products, or put them in the back of the cupboard and wait three days before using them.
I have anxiety about eating raw lettuce, herbs, and other fresh produce because I know by the time I buy it, 20 hands have touched it. Is there a way to consume fresh produce safely? Or should I wait to eat it?
AR: Obviously, you should wash your produce because you should always wash your produce. But there is no evidence at all that the virus can be transmitted by eating. And for this virus in particular, eating is an unlikely root of transmission because when you are eating, you are actively chewing and swallowing food. You don’t swallow into your respiratory tract. Also, the virus is not likely to remain infectious in your stomach, as it is an extremely acidic environment. I would think that the hydrochloric acid in your stomach would inactivate the virus completely. Again, it is important to just wash your hands and practice good hygiene. The biggest risk is not going to be eating the food, it is going to be touching something and then touching your face or nose. You can minimize this risk by washing your hands regularly.