Should I be sanitising my groceries to protect myself against Covid-19?

We asked a trio of medical experts

29 July 2020 - 08:40 By Sanet Oberholzer
Do you wipe your groceries down before packing them away?
Do you wipe your groceries down before packing them away?
Image: 123RF/kat1ka

When it comes to navigating life in the new normal, we take so many precautions to safeguard ourselves and our loved ones against Covid-19 that it's sometimes hard to tell if we've being pragmatic or paranoid.

Case in point: should we should be sanitising or wiping down our groceries before packing them away — or is this overkill?

To find out, we asked three medical experts whether they'd recommend doing so. This is what they had to say:

Prof Wolfgang Preiser

Head of Medical Virology at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Pathology

Assuming that your groceries are as clean as they usually are when purchased from a shop, you should definitely not sanitise them by wiping them or, worse, spraying them with disinfectant.

Packaging is extremely unlikely to be contaminated with a viable (still infectious) virus unless visibly soiled. In any case, packaging is removed before the preparation and consumption of food. Throw it away or recycle it and wash your hands with soap and water — done.

Unpackaged fruit and vegetables are either peeled before consumption or should be rinsed — and not because of Covid but because of any dust and so on which may be on them.

Other unpacked goods like bread are typically kept under lids and handled by staff with (clean) gloves. The risk of getting Covid through any of this is virtually nil.

You should also definitely not wear disposable gloves when shopping — nor in fact for almost any other activity outside health care — as they give a false sense of security, are often porous, and may lead to more contamination than bare hands that are regularly washed and/or sanitised. Instead keep a small bottle of sanitiser at the ready.

Dr Susan Louw

Haematopathologist at the National Health Laboratory Service

Reputable, knowledgeable organisations that have issued guidelines such as the World Health Organisation have indicated that there’s now no evidence that people can catch Covid-19 from food or food packaging.

Covid-19 is a respiratory illness and the transmission route is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact to respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. It’s not a food-borne disease so it can’t grow in food or survive for a very long time on the packaging of food.

If it is present on the packaging it still hasn’t been proven that that virus can actually cause the disease in the people who handle the packaging — it may just be viral particles, pieces of virus instead of an intact virus.

What could be dangerous is if sanitising agents are ingested. That could be more dangerous than actually ingesting some viral particles that are not contagious.

When you go shopping, you should rather focus on the people around you and not so much the food in the store. Avoid crowds and shop quickly. When you get home, wash your hands and wash your hands before you eat. Just practice normal hygiene.

Dr Kgosi Letlape

President of the Health Professions Council of SA 

We don’t really have a scientific basis for making a recommendation. The notion of being paranoid and saying “other people have held this, I’m going to have to clean everything” is being too excessive, in my opinion. It’s just about being pragmatic and not paranoid.

We shouldn’t lose [sight of] the common-sense, everyday recommendations that were around pre-Covid about washing your hands and cleaning your kitchen surfaces, chopping boards and so on before you prepare food. If you’ve got fruit and vegetables, even before Covid it was recommended that you clean them with water, not with sanitiser. Just simple, proper cleaning and rinsing of food will be sufficient.

The key issue is this: you break the cycle of infection by ensuring that once you have touched surfaces — like the groceries that you've packed away — you then wash your hands. Breaking the opportunity for transference is far more important for people to worry about.