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Covid-19 and groceries: what advice should you take?

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Social media is awash with advice on how to protect yourself from Covid-19. A voice note doing the rounds on Whatsapp is encouraging people to disinfect their groceries before packing them away. 

“You don’t know who has been handling the products, it could be an infected person,” it warns. 

The woman in the audio does not identify herself but says that she runs a non-profit organisation and attends many workshops where “good and important information” has been passed on. 

Her advice to people returning from the grocery store is to soak all cans and bottles in a “strong solution” of salt water and bleach for two minutes. Products that come in boxes and packets need to be wiped down with the same solution. And fruit and vegetables should be soaked in salt water, especially cucumbers and tomatoes as the virus loves to “stick” on them. 

Similar advice has been doing the rounds on Facebook. In one video, a “Dr Jeffrey VanWigen” advises people to leave their groceries in their cars or garages for three days before bringing them inside. Thereafter, they need to be disinfected. Fruit and vegetables should be washed with soap and water, he says

But experts say these steps may not be necessary. 

How does Covid-19 spread?

Covid-19 spreads mainly through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with the disease coughs or breathes. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch Covid-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

People can also catch Covid-19 if they breathe in droplets when a person with the disease coughs out or exhales droplets. This is why the World Health Organization recommends keeping a metre distance from other people, especially sick people. 

Little chance of virus spreading on food packaging

“There are several studies showing the virus can survive for several days on plastic, cardboard etc,” Gunnar Sigge, associate professor and head of the department of food science at Stellenbosch University, told Africa Check. 

“So, theoretically, if the food packaging were handled by someone infected with the virus, it could be on the packaging.”

But the risk of transmission would be very low. “In these times we’re expecting that food producers, packers, handlers etc. are all taking even more stringent precautions to prevent the spread of any pathogens,” he said. 

Dr Donald Schaffner, distinguished professor in the department of food science at Rutgers University in the US, agrees. “As far as we know, Covid-19 is not spread via food or food packaging,” he told Africa Check. 

“The biggest risk that you face from your groceries is the risk that you face by going into the grocery store to get them, in other words it’s the risk from being around other people.” 

So what precautions should we be taking with our groceries? 

Keep it simple: wash your hands 

“I’ve read that salt is very ineffective against the virus, so I’m not sure if saltwater would be any help at all. Household bleach would probably only be slightly more effective,” Sigge said.

Both of these liquids together could wash off some of the virus, but regular hand washing while preparing meals would still be the better option, he said. 

And do we need to be particularly worried about tomatoes and cucumbers? 

“Washing fresh vegetables before preparation has always been a good idea,” Sigge said. 

Schaffer said soaking tomatoes and cucumbers in salt water couldn’t do any harm. “But I don’t think there’s any evidence that there is any benefit either.” 

As for the suggestion that fruit and vegetables should be washed with soap and water, Schaffner says this is also not recommended.

“Soap can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. Save the soap for cleaning your hands and your dishes.” 

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