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Am I bringing coronavirus home with my groceries?

Samantha Christmann

Like you, I'm looking at everything with new eyes these days.

Personally, I'm suspicious of anything that enters my house and comes into contact with my children. I've gotten to wonder how I should be handling food from the store. Judging from the emails and messages readers have been sending, it's on your minds, too.

Covid-19 is not a foodborne illness. But, as far as scientists know, novel coronavirus can live on surfaces for hours or days. There's no hard evidence showing how long it can live on food.

Marion Nestle is a Paulette Goddard Professor, of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University and the author of "Food Safety."

"Coronavirus is a respiratory virus, mostly," Nestle wrote in her blog on FoodPolitics.com. "Contamination through food is theoretically possible, but hasn’t happened yet far as we know."

Experts, including those at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, say there is no evidence anyone has contracted Covid-19 from food.

Still, there is so much we don't know about this virus. I don't want to take chances. Is it safe to wash my apples under the tap like I always do and feed them to my kids? Or are there advanced precautions I should take?

Here's what the experts said.

Follow the four P's. If you want to take the greatest precautions, follow the same rules you would in a country without safe water, Nestle said. Eat foods that are piping hot (high temperatures kill viruses), peeled (wash your hands before and after), purified (cooked and not recontaminated) or packaged (industrially packed, frozen or dried).

The biggest risk of infection comes from interacting with infected people. That's why it's so important to stay home, to keep social distance and to wash hands when shopping for food or handling food deliveries.

What about fresh produce? "If you have fresh produce, wash it. When in doubt, cook it," Nestle wrote on her blog.

But how to wash it? First, make sure your hands are washed and your sink and counters are clean. Then scrubbing it under running water should be enough, according to Randy Worobo, a food science professor from Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"Never use soap or a bleach solution. Detergents and bleach solutions are not meant to be consumed or used on food, and washing your fresh produce in these solutions can make you sick," Worobo said in an email.

Worobo said rinsing under cold water is fine.

But if you typically use a scrub brush, a product like Veggie Wash, or a vinegar and water solution to clean your veggies, you can continue to do that, other experts have said. None of those things will kill the virus, the idea is to wash it down the drain.

Should we ditch reusable bags? Some grocers, such as Tops Markets, have relaxed their policies and returned to bagging purchases in plastic bags. Many also now require customers with reusable bags to bag groceries themselves.

"Reusable bags shouldn’t present additional risks if the reusable bags have been used and cleaned properly," Worobo said.

You should continue with your usual food safety protocols to prevent cross-contamination. Disinfect your bags before and after each use, double bag raw meat, poultry and seafood; and bring an ice pack and insulated bag for temperature-sensitive foods.

Don't forget the packaging. Remove food from its outer packaging and discard the packaging immediately.

If you want to take added precautions, you can put cereal or other items in Tupperware containers, put sugar and flour in canisters and take fruit out of bags.

During times of natural disaster, such as flooding, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has directed people to sanitize canned goods with a sanitizing solution made from one cup of bleach and five gallons of water.

When you're done, sanitize all surfaces the packaging touched. Don't touch your face, eyes, nose or mouth until you've washed your hands.

Stay centered. When you're trying to balance between staying safe and not freaking out, remember that your best defense against Covid-19 is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which will keep your immunity high.

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