Should You Be Wiping Down Your Groceries When You Get Home from the Store? Experts are Divided

Claudia Harmata

Each day the United States is continuing to see an increase in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases across the country — with more and more cities and states announcing stay-at-home orders for their communities.

An exception to this new normal are trips for essentials, such as groceries. However, Americans are understandably concerned over how to minimize their risk of catching or spreading the potentially deadly virus while making a trip to the grocery store, and whether or not they should be taking extra precautions with the items they are bringing into their home.

“I think it’s a hard and a scary time to go grocery shopping,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Colombia University told Good Morning America on Wednesday.

While it’s not uncommon for consumers to wash their newly bought produce, many people have begun wiping down items like pasta boxes and milk cartons amid the pandemic. Some reports have even surfaced of people tossing all of their items into a bathtub full of soapy water, or isolating their paper-packaged goods in a separate room for a day.

Rasmussen told the morning show that she personally doesn’t wipe down her groceries when she returns home from the store, as she says she takes extra steps for prevention of transmission before and during the trip that others can do as well.

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“In my household, we’ve tried to minimize our grocery store trips to once a week, if less,” she explained, recommending that people “consider going to the grocery store a little less than they normally do, only as often as they need too.”

The expert also said she aims to go during off hours, to avoid as much interaction with people as she can.

Once there, Rasmussen always wipes down her cart, uses self check-out if available and avoids touching her face. After her trip, her first order of business is washing her hands.

Dr. William Haseltine, infectious disease expert and Chair and President of ACCESS Health International, recently also told PEOPLE that he believed sanitizing the packaging of products was “a little too much,” as they pose a low risk for transmission.

“If you’re really worried about that, wear gloves when you open the packages,” he suggested. “Other than that, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

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When it comes to produce, Haseltine added that washing with soap “can help” minimize risk, but questioned the practicality of it. “I wouldn’t wash your lettuce with soapy water,” he said, “but something like a potato or an apple or a plum you can wash, the outside of a mango you can wash.”

However, other experts recommend more careful measures with groceries. NBC’s investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen suggested that people should be taking their groceries and wiping them down with disinfectant wipes.

If wipes are unavailable, she told Today show hosts Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager to fill up sink with warm, soapy water to clean any fruits and vegetables.

For paper and plastic products, she recommended leaving them in a special place for a day, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and plastic for up to 72 hours.

While experts appear to be divided on the issue, it’s important to note that people can do what they feel is most comfortable with their groceries — within reason.

Taking some time to wipe down paper and plastic goods won’t be at a detriment to anyone’s health, but at the bare minimum, everyone should continue washing their hands frequently and adhering to basic CDC guidelines while grocery shopping.

Beyond that, 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,” Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, director of Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told PEOPLE. “The evidence we have is still largely person-to-person transmission.”

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. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.