Believe it or not, your local food mart may be germier than a public restroom. That's right — from bacteria to viruses, grocery stores can expose you to a plethora of potential pathogens.
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Whether you're trying to avoid the common cold or stay safe from the novel coronavirus, taking these four precautions can help protect your health on your next food run.
1. Be Careful With Carts
At the grocery store, the first thing you touch — the shopping cart — may be the most perilous when it comes to picking up pathogens.
A study conducted in Spain found that 41 percent of shopping cart handles and 50 percent of cart baskets (where children usually sit) were contaminated by enterobacteria (which are associated with intestinal diseases) while coliforms (which often originate from feces) were lurking on almost 26 percent of handles and 46 percent of baskets, per December 2018 research published in the Journal of Applied Animal Research.
Similar results were found in American grocery stores. A December 2012 study in Food Protection Trends detected coliforms — including E. coli — on 72 percent of shopping carts. Researchers noted that this finding indicated far greater bacterial levels than those discovered in public restrooms. Eww.
According to the authors' hypothesis, these bacteria may have stemmed from contact with raw foods (think: meat), bird poop (while the carts were stored in parking lots), consumers' dirty hands and leaky diapers.
Not only is this super gross, but exposure to these bacteria can cause infections. To avoid this gaggle of germs altogether, consider using your own portable cart for grocery shopping. But if that's not possible, you can still take a few precautions to lower your risk.
"Wipe down the shopping cart handle (and the child seat) with disinfectant before you use it while also minimizing hand-to-face contact as you move through the store," suggests Jason Kindrachuk, PhD, a virologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada. And at the end of your trip, wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds or clean them with a good alcohol-based sanitizer.
2. Skip the Self-Checkout
Self-checkout may be super convenient, but it's also a surefire way to make contact with meddling microbes, University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Just imagine all the grimy hands that have touched the screen throughout the day. This germy picture grows even grislier if you consider that most people don't follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for proper hand-washing practices (ICYMI, the CDC recommends scrubbing with soap and water for 20 seconds).
"Wash [your hands] with soap and water as soon as you have the chance. Hand sanitizers and wipes carry a convenience factor, but their effectiveness can be hindered depending on how dirty or oily your hands are."
Indeed, an April 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health found that only a measly 5 percent of bathroom users washed their hands long enough to effectively kill germs that can cause disease. And it gets worse: A whopping 33 percent skipped the soap and 10 percent didn't even bother washing their dirty mitts at all.
Needless to say, this hideous hand hygiene can transform your self-checkout kiosk into a breeding ground for germs. But if you're in a pinch and must use it, always apply an alcohol-based hand sanitizer afterward, Gerba says, adding that sanitizers with at least 60 to 70 percent alcohol work best against viruses.
"That said, make sure to wash with soap and water as soon as you have the chance. Hand sanitizers and wipes carry a convenience factor, but their effectiveness can be hindered depending on how dirty or oily your hands are," Kindrachuk adds.
In addition to reducing hand-to-face touching, be mindful of how often you're touching your smartphone while out and about. And don't forget to sanitize your device, too — here's when and how to do that.
3. Ditch the Deli Counter
You might have heard that eating processed lunch meats can increase your cancer risk, but you might not know that cold cuts can make you sick in other ways, too.
A November 2014 study published in the Journal of Food Protection found that almost 10 percent of samples from 30 delis — including swabs from surfaces like meat slicers and counters where food is prepared — tested positive for the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes.
If ingested, these bacteria can cause diarrhea or an upset stomach in healthy people but may result in more serious systemic infections in the elderly, children, pregnant women and individuals with weakened immune systems.
For this reason, the CDC recommends those who are at higher risk avoid eating foods like lunch meats, cold cuts and other deli meats (unless cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F).
If you're devoted to the deli counter, the CDC says you can take the following steps to help prevent Listeria infection:
- Be careful not to let juice from lunch meat spill onto other foods, utensils and food preparation surfaces.
- Wash your hands after prepping deli-sliced meats and cheeses.
- Once opened, don't store packages of deli-sliced meat any longer than three to five days in the fridge.
4. Say No to the Salad Bar and Free Samples
There's nothing like walking through grocery store aisles to make your belly grumble. On an empty stomach, you may be tempted to reach for those free cheese samples or make a quick stop at the salad bar. But that's not the best idea when you're avoiding germs.
Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration publishes a Food Code, or a guide health authorities can use to ensure places that serve food like grocery stores are following proper safety rules and protocol, your local salad bar still may not be safe from contamination.
Case in point: An August 2016 study published in the Journal of Food: Microbiology, Safety & Hygiene found that E. coli can be easily transferred to a person's hands while using salad tongs.
Same goes for those yummy-looking free finger foods. They may look appetizing to the naked eye, but what about under a microscope? You just don't know if anyone with unclean hands has touched them, i.e., if they're crawling with critters that could potentially make you sick.
Moral of the story: Save the salads and snack bites for your home kitchen where you can ensure they're prepared in a sanitary way.
Should You Disinfect Your Groceries?
But what about once you're home? Should you be concerned that all your groceries potentially harbor COVID-19? During the early weeks of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many people used disinfectant to wipe down their groceries before unpacking them in the kitchen.
That's probably not necessary.
The risk of getting infected with COVID-19 through food — or its packaging — is very low, per the CDC. In fact, there isn't a case that can be pointed to where someone got COVID-19 by touching food or shopping bags, according to the CDC.
COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person, according to the CDC; while it's possible that touching a germy surface and then touching your mouth or nose could lead to infection, that's likely not the primary way the virus spreads.
Still, if you got accustomed to wiping down your groceries, it can be a hard habit to abandon. If you prefer, you can wipe down your groceries and let them air dry, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Just make sure you don't use bleach or ammonia on cardboard or plastic packaging, per the CDC.
Do rinse off fresh fruits and vegetables before putting them away, but just use water, not soap (and definitely do not use disinfectant on your produce!).
Both the CDC and FDA agree that the best practice is to regularly disinfect your kitchen counters and to always wash your hands for 20 seconds or more both when you get home from the grocery and after unpacking your food.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- Journal of Applied Animal Research: “Is the use of supermarket trolleys microbiologically safe? Study of microbiological contamination.”
- Food Protection Trends: “Bacterial contamination of shopping carts and approaches to control.”
- Journal of Environmental Health: “Hand Washing Practices in a College Town Environment.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “When and How to Wash Your Hands.”
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration:” FDA Food Code.”
- Journal of Food: Microbiology, Safety & Hygiene: “Transfer of Escherichia coli while using Salad Tongs.”
- Journal of Food Protection: “Listeria monocytogenes and Listeria spp. Contamination Patterns in Retail Delicatessen Establishments in Three U.S. States.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Outbreak of Listeria Infections Linked to Deli-Sliced Meats and Cheeses.”
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Shopping for Food During the COVID-19 Pandemic - Information for Consumers"
- CDC: "Food and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)"
- CDC: "Running Essential Errands"
- CDC: "How COVID-19 Spreads"