Rutgers Food Science Professor Offers Practical Advice on Food in the Era of COVID-19

“If you are concerned about the outside of food packages being contaminated, I suggest that you wash your hands or sanitize your hands before you sit down to eat any food that you might’ve taken out of those containers. And guess what, washing your hands before you eat is a best practice even when we’re not in a pandemic,” said Don Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor in the Department of Food Science in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

“Soap should absolutely not be used to wash food,” Dr. Schaffner said. “It’s not designed for that. Soap can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested. Current recommendations by scientific experts, including the FDA and USDA, say to wash fresh fruits and vegetables in cold water.”

Another important bit of advice to consider is whether it’s appropriate to even go to the grocery store at all, Professor Schaffner said. According to the CDC, older adults and people of any age with serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. If you fall into one of these categories, Dr. Schaffner suggests that you might want to consider using a shopping service or having a family member or neighbor do your shopping. Remember that if that person does not live with you, you should practice appropriate social distancing when receiving your groceries.“For people going to grocery stores, many are offering hand sanitizers at the entrance and are offering to sanitize grocery carts. I think these are two great ideas, and customers should take advantage of both of them,” he said.

“My other advice is to make a list, so you know what you want. Keep moving and get out of the way as you move through the store picking out the items on your list. Practice appropriate social distancing, trying your best to keep 6 feet away from other shoppers. If there is hand sanitizer available, I use it when I’m exiting the store, and then I’ll use it again at home once I finish putting all my groceries away and returning my reusable shopping bags to the car.”

“Many people use reusable grocery bags as a responsible choice. We do this in my family as well. It’s a best practice (even before the times of pandemic) to wash your reusable bags on a regular basis. While it is theoretically possible that a reusable bag may pick up germs, including coronavirus while in the grocery store, the biggest threat that anyone faces is someone else in the store who has COVID-19,” he said. “I would suggest that you keep your grocery bags in the car, so you have them handy the next time you go shopping. If you’re concerned that your bags might have coronavirus on them, you can wash them. You should also wash your hands after you have finished putting all your groceries away. This was good advice even before pandemic.”

Professor Schaffner is available to comment at

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