Grocery shopping in the midst of COVID-19

What steps do I need to take when grocery shopping in light of the coronavirus pandemic?

Shopper disinfecting hands with sanitizer in supermarket during shopping for groceries. Photo: Getty Images.

COVID-19 is not a foodborne disease. While there have been no reports as of this time to suggest that COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has been transmitted by handling food or food packaging, here are ways that consumers can protect themselves when grocery shopping.

COVID-19 transmits person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, said Qiuhong Wang, a scientist and coronavirus researcher with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. Symptoms range from mild to severe respiratory illness. Advanced age or conditions such as various cancers, COPD, asthma, heart disease, and diabetes are associated with an increased severity of COVID-19 infections and fatality rates.

The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake. The virus can also transmit when a person touches an object or surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth or eyes before washing their hands.

With that in mind, the most important thing that consumers can do to protect themselves and others when grocery shopping is to practice social distancing, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, CFAES’ outreach arm.

That includes keeping at least 6 feet between yourself and other shoppers while shopping and when standing in line to pay for your purchases, she said, noting that current evidence shows the biggest risk of transmission of COVID-19 is being around individuals who are symptomatic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As such, many retailers have taken to marking safe standing distances with an “X” on the floor in the checkout lines.

“Although consumers should not be too worried about COVID-19 transmissions from food, everyone should follow good hygiene practices when purchasing and preparing foods to lessen their chances of contracting the virus from other sources,” she said.

If possible, use hand sanitizer before and after selecting produce items, and avoid touching multiple produce items when making selections, Ilic said.

“If you are concerned about fresh produce or other food being contaminated with coronavirus, wash your hands before and after eating, and before touching your face,” she said. “Also, make sure you never cough or sneeze in or around fresh produce display refrigerators.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wash their hands often; refrain from touching their mouth, nose, and eyes; and use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.”

Many grocery stores have instituted safety precautions such as reducing the hours the stores are open to allow employees to sanitize and restock the stores each night, and allowing special shopping hours for elderly consumers and those with compromised immune systems.

Additionally, here are other steps that Extension educators suggest you take when going to the store for food and supplies:

  • Sanitize shopping cart and basket handles before and after you use them. All grocery stores should have sanitization wipes near the entrance. If bringing a young child to the store with you, clean and sanitize the child flap seat and other areas that the child can touch. This is because coronaviruses can remain on hard surfaces such as steel and plastic for up to three days, research has shown.
  • Use a single-use plastic bag for meat packages. Although not specific to COVID-19 prevention, research has shown that doing so can reduce the risk of foodborne pathogen cross-contamination.
  •  You don’t have to clean and sanitize food packaging. If you or your loved ones are at increased risk from infection, you can wipe shelf-stable and ready-to-eat food packages. If you do so follow the instructions on the label of the sanitizer or wipe. Do not wash your produce using soup and water as it may be toxic.
  • Use sanitizer wipes on “high-touch” hand-contact surfaces such as door handles, salad-bar tongs, and checkout counters.
  • Wash and sanitize your hands after grocery shopping. It’s important that you wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds each time. Hand sanitizer is also an option if you do not have access to soap and water.
  • Use separate bags for raw meat and ready-to-eat food items, as a general precaution.
  • Wash and sanitize reusable grocery bags often. You can do this by washing the bags in hot, soapy water. If the bags are made of nonwashable material, wipe them down with a sanitizer before and after each use.
  • If possible, avoid using cash, opting to use a credit or debit card instead. Once home, it’s a good idea to wipe your credit or debit card with a sanitizing cloth or wipe.

For more information, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a website dedicated to answering questions regarding food, food safety, and COVID-19.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for OSU Extension.

Healthy eating when stressed

My kids are out of school for several weeks now, as part of my state’s efforts to lessen the spread of coronavirus. As a result, I’m stressed, the kids are stressed, and I’ve found myself reaching for rich, high-sugar foods that I typically avoid because they’re not the healthiest options. Any tips on how I can eat better during this time of high stress?

Photo: Getty Images

You’re not alone. People often reach for comfort foods during times of high stress. Many times, those foods tend to be high in sugar and low in fiber.

It’s best to avoid those foods because they can increase the development of chronic inflammation in our bodies, according to Patricia Brinkman, family and consumer sciences educator with Ohio State University Extension.

That’s an issue because high levels of chronic inflammation are believed to cause rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, reduced kidney function, and inflammatory bowel disease, and prolonged chronic inflammation increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases, Brinkman wrote in Eating Healthy During Stressful Times, an Ohioline fact sheet.

Ohioline is OSU Extension’s free online information resource and can be found at ohioline.osu.edu. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“Even low amounts of inflammation can increase your risk of obesity, depression, and the effects of aging,” she wrote. “By eating a healthier diet, we may reduce our risk of chronic inflammation and diseases.”

Some examples of healthy eating habits can be found by following these three plans, Brinkman says:

  • Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, based on guidance found in the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines
  • Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern
  • DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet

“All three plans encourage us to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and seafood and plant proteins,” she said. “All three plans limit or encourage people to avoid consumption of empty calories including foods with added sugar, or drinking excess, as well as alcohol, refined grains, saturated fat foods, and high sodium foods.”

When crafting a healthy eating plan for a person on a 2,000-calorie diet per day, Brinkman says to consider consuming the following:

  • Vegetables—2 to 4 cups
  • Fruits—at least 2 cups a day
  • Whole grains—3 to 4 ounces a day
  • Fish/seafood—8 to 16 ounces a week, for omega-3
  • Lean plant proteins or meats—6 to 8 ounces a day
  • Nuts and soy—4 to 6 ounces a week
  • Olive oil—1 to 2 tablespoons a day
  • Dairy (1% or skim)—1 to 3 cups a day
  • Alcohol—0 to 1 drink a day

Brinkman advises that you eat lots of fiber by eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts, noting that, “fiber increases the anti-inflammatory properties from these foods. Add some garlic, onion, pepper, ginger, turmeric, oregano, thyme, and rosemary for additional anti-inflammatory properties.”

“When you are in a very stressful time, choose to eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, 1% or fat-free dairy, seafood, and plant proteins, rather than comfort foods or junk foods,” she said. “You can also choose to eat fruit for dessert instead of other sweet foods.”

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Patricia Brinkman, family and consumer sciences educator for OSU Extension.

Food safety and coronavirus

Photo: Getty Images

Do I need to worry about food safety in regard to coronavirus? Specifically, can food become contaminated with coronavirus and thereby infect people?

There have been no reports of this happening.

As of this time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is unaware of any instances suggesting that coronavirus, COVID-19, has been transmitted by foods. This includes meats, fruits, and vegetables. Moreover, the USDA has created a website dedicated to answering questions regarding food, food safety, and COVID-19.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that include the common cold, severe illnesses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), all of which can infect both humans and animals, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. Symptoms range from mild to severe respiratory illness. Advanced age or conditions such as various cancers, COPD, asthma, heart disease, and diabetes are associated with an increased severity of COVID-19 infections and fatality rates.

Coronaviruses transmit person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, said Qiuhong Wang, a scientist and coronavirus researcher with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake,” she said. “The virus can also transmit by touching an object or surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth or eyes before washing your hands.”

Experimental studies with a bovine coronavirus have shown that the virus can be stable on the surface of lettuce, said Linda Saif, a scientist and coronavirus researcher at CFAES and Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Coronaviral RNA was detectable on the lettuce surface for 30 days, and infectious bovine coronavirus was detected on the lettuce surface for at least 14 days after inoculation,” said Saif, who is a world-renowned expert on coronaviruses. “However, from experience with previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS, the transmission through food consumption is not likely to occur.”

Further, the transmission through foods is not possible if the foods are cooked properly since coronaviruses are inactivated by heat, much like other human pathogens, Saif said.

“There is no information whether COVID-19-infected food handlers could contaminate uncooked produce that is not further treated,” Saif said.

Although consumers should not be too worried about COVID-19 transmissions from food, everyone should follow good hygiene practices when preparing foods to lessen their chances of contracting the virus from other sources, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, CFAES’ outreach arm.

“It’s important to protect yourself and your loved ones that may be at risk from the severe form of COVID-19,” Ilic said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wash their hands often; refrain from touching their mouth, nose, and eyes; and use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.”

“In addition, everyone should avoid crowded spaces and any contact with people that may be infected.”

Cleaning surfaces is also important, she said.

A recent study found that coronaviruses can persist up to nine days on inanimate surfaces such as metal or plastic, according to the Journal of Hospital Infection. Coronaviruses persist longer at lower temperatures and when the humidity is higher. Surface disinfection with 0.1% sodium hypochlorite or 62%–71% ethanol significantly reduces the infectivity of coronavirus on surfaces within one minute of contact.

“As with any food safety measures, you should always wash your hands before, during, and after food preparation and before you eat any foods,” Ilic said. “Additionally, you should be sure to carefully wash any surfaces used for food preparation.”

When handling raw meats, fish, and poultry, keep them separate from other foods, cook them to the correct temperature, and refrigerate the cooked foods within two hours of preparation. This is because bacteria that can cause food poisoning multiply the quickest between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, Ilic said.

Always use a food thermometer to ensure that your meat is cooked to the correct internal temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella, according to the USDA.

For meats such as steak and pork, that temperature is 145 degrees. For ground meats—including beef, pork, veal, and lamb—the correct temperature is 160 degrees, the USDA says. And poultry such as chicken and turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Other food safety tips from the USDA can be found here.

At restaurants and retailers—particularly those that offer buffet-style foodservice—be mindful to protect yourself and others, Ilic said.

“Avoid touching the fresh produce, and make sure you never cough or sneeze in or around fresh produce display refrigerators,” Ilic said. “Don’t serve yourself at the buffet without washing your hands first, and avoid coughing or sneezing around self-serve or buffet foods.”

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for OSU Extension.

Stocking up in case of emergency

I keep hearing that people should have an emergency supply of foods on hand in case of emergency, but I have no clue what to get. What food supplies should I stock up on in case of emergency?

Photo: Getty Images

Good question. Some consumers in certain areas of Washington State have found grocery stores with empty shelves, as many people responded to coronavirus fears and went out in what some have described as a panic, to stock up on supplies.

But that’s not a good idea, because panic-buying could lead to shortages of supplies for others if people overbuy items they otherwise really don’t need. To avoid scenarios like that, it’s a good idea to always have on hand at least a three-day supply of nonperishable essentials such as canned foods, dry mixes, and other staples that do not require refrigeration, cooking, water, or special preparation, according to Ready.gov.

Additionally, you should have at least three days’ worth of water on hand, says the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The average person needs 1 gallon of water per day, depending on their age, physical activity and health, FEMA says. And don’t forget your pets. It’s recommended that you should also have on hand dry or wet food in cans or sealed containers or bags, in addition to enough water for each pet.

Ready.gov, which is run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, advises consumers to choose foods your family will eat and items that won’t make you thirsty, when planning your three-day emergency food supply. The site also offers an emergency supply list that you can download and take with you when shopping so that you’ll know what they recommend you purchase.

Some of the foods Ready.gov and FEMA suggest include:

  • milk in either shelf-stable or powdered form in case you lose power.
  • cans of soups, stews, vegetables, beans, and other items that can be eaten hot or cold.
  • dried meats such as beef jerky and canned or vacuum-sealed pouches of tuna, chicken, potted meat, or sausages.
  • snack foods such as whole-grain crackers and cereal, granola bars, dried fruit, applesauce, fruit cups, trail mix, nuts, and peanut or other nut butters.
  • fresh fruit that has a longer shelf life, such as apples, oranges, and pears.
  • protein or fruit bars.
  • dried fruit.
  • canned juices.
  • food for infants.

Also, it’s important that you have a manual can opener as part of your emergency supply list, officials say, in case of a power outage.

If the emergency you are experiencing involves a power outage, remember to keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service advises. The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours, or at least 24 hours if it is half full and the door remains closed.

You should throw out refrigerated, perishable foods such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, and leftovers if they’ve been without power for more than four hours. That’s because perishable foods left out longer than two hours can rapidly grow bacteria that will leave the food unsafe to eat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Jenny Lobb, educator, family and consumer sciences, OSU Extension.