Experts share tips for reducing the risk of exposure from your diet

By Shay Spence
March 25, 2020 06:26 PM
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As the coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S., leading to restaurant closures and extreme social distancing measures, many people are finding themselves cooking all their meals at home—but even with that comes some theoretical risk.

First, there’s the grocery store. In cities where stay-at-home orders are in place, supermarkets and pharmacies still remain open as “essential services”, often drawing crowds as people make outings to restock their refrigerators and pantries. With more people comes higher risk of exposure, and in recent days there have been multiple cases of grocery store employees testing positive for COVID-19, with Trader Joe’s even temporarily closing two locations in Manhattan due to the issue.

Minimizing trips and going to the store during off hours (early in the morning or late at night) is the best way to reduce your risk, but experts say there are further precautionary measures you can take. “I would wear gloves — rubber gloves, leather, any kind, and be sure you wash your hands when you come home,” Dr. William Haseltine, infectious disease expert and Chair and President of ACCESS Health International, tells PEOPLE.

To avoid walking inside, many grocery stores are now offering curbside pick-up. Additionally, services like Instacart, Shipt and Amazon Fresh will deliver groceries to your door with no contact—though many areas are now seeing multiple day wait times.

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Once you do have groceries, there’s the question of how to handle them. In a recent interview with the Daily Mail, associate professor at the University of Sydney Timothy Newsome recommended washing fresh produce “with warm soapy water, just as you do your hands.”

But is this really necessary, and is it safe in itself? “Using soap has never really been recommended for fresh produce before, and our recommendation has still been to use water and rinse,” Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, director of Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, tells PEOPLE. “But if people want to do it, it’s innocuous. I don’t have any evidence that it will for sure reduce risk of the virus because we don’t have the research.”

Dr. Haseltine adds that washing with soap “can help” minimize risk, but questions the practicality of it in many circumstances. “I wouldn’t wash your lettuce with soapy water,” he says, “but something like a potato or an apple or a plum you can wash, the outside of a mango you can wash.”

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Both Diez-Gonzalez and Haseltine acknowledge that the safest way to ensure food safety is heat and cooking. “Your best friend when it comes to any pathogens or organisms is cooking,” says Diez-Gonzalez. “If you’re really concerned about not being exposed to any source, just eat cooked vegetables.”

Ultimately, though, the risk of exposure through your diet appears to be low. “There is almost no evidence that implicates that food as a vehicle for causing this disease,” adds Diez-Gonzalez. “The evidence we have is still largely person-to-person transmission.”

“We’re not talking about zero risk, we’re talking about dramatic risk reduction,” says Dr. Haseltine. “Zero risk…you’d have to be in a space station, and even then it can come up with your food. So there’s no zero risk, there’s risk reduction.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes ,PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.

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