Chow Line: Cleaning and disinfecting amid COVID-19

Photo: Getty Images

Do I need to store my food in the garage or wipe my groceries with a disinfectant when I get them home from the grocery store to keep safe from coronavirus?

While some people choose to wipe their groceries down with a disinfectant cloth when bringing them home from the grocery store as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, that is not a step that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is a requirement. Nor does the CDC recommend that consumers must quarantine their food purchases in the garage before bringing them into the house.

This is because groceries are not frequently touched surfaces, and the risk of them containing COVID-19 is low, says Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“There have been no reports as of this time to suggest that COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has been transmitted by handling food or food packaging,” she said. “Coronavirus is not a gastrointestinal illness and cannot be contracted by ingesting contaminated foods, nor does it multiply on foods.

“The chances of contaminating your refrigerator with the virus are low. The virus needs to get to your respiratory tract to make you sick.”

COVID-19 most often transmits person-to-person through droplets that are produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. The virus is most often transferred to another individual when droplets directly reach their nose, mouth, or eyes, or through close contact such as a handshake. The virus can also transmit when a person touches an object or surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth or eyes before washing their hands.

However, since current evidence suggests that the novel coronavirus can remain viable for hours or days on a variety of surfaces, cleaning of high-touch surfaces such as door handles followed by disinfection is recommended by the CDC as a best practice to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.

“While you don’t HAVE TO clean and sanitize food packaging, if you or your loved ones are at increased risk from infection, and you feel anxious, you can wipe shelf-stable and ready-to-eat food packages following the instructions on the label of the sanitizer or wipe,” Ilic said, “and let it air dry before storing.

“However, it’s important that you don’t wash your produce using soap and water, as the soap may be toxic. Simply rinsing the produce under clean running water will suffice.”

With that in mind, Ilic suggests the following steps after getting home with your groceries:

  • Wash your hands upon arrival from the grocery store and before storing foods.
  • Do not store groceries outside the home.
  • Refrigerate perishable food promptly; don’t overload your refrigerator.
  • If you buy a large quantity of produce, think about freezing some of it to avoid waste.
  • Use or freeze raw meat and poultry before their expiration dates to stay safe and reduce waste.
  • If reusing nylon and plastic grocery bags, clean the inside and outside of the bags with soapy water, and then rinse them. You can also spray or wipe down the bags inside and out with a diluted bleach solution or a recommended disinfectant. Always allow the bags to air dry completely before storing and reusing them.
  • If using a cloth reusable grocery bag, wash the bag in warm water with normal laundry detergent and dry the bag on the warmest setting possible.

When cleaning surfaces in your home, Ilic recommends the following:

  • Always clean dirty kitchen surfaces with soap and water before you sanitize them. If you do not do this, the sanitation step is not going to be effective.
  • Use a disinfectant product on the surfaces, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Commercial disinfectants come in three forms: liquid, spray, or wipes. All have different instructions that have to be followed in order for the disinfectant to be effective.
  • Do not use concentrated bleach for disinfecting. It is very toxic.
  • Do not use any surface cleaners on your hands, in place of hand sanitizer. They might cause damage to the skin.
  • If using bleach as a disinfectant, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. You can prepare a bleach solution by mixing 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) bleach per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Make sure to use containers of bleach that have been open no longer than 30 days, as bleach can break down over time.

Lastly, here are some ways you can protect yourself in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission from packaging or delivery:

  • Practice handwashing and use hand sanitizer before and after handling packaging. It’s important to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time. Hand sanitizer is also an option if you do not have access to soap and water. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • If you use delivery for restaurant food, after you receive the food, unpack it and dispose of the packaging, and then wash your hands. Do not touch your nose, mouth, eyes, or face until after this procedure is complete.

For more information, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a website dedicated to answering questions regarding food, food safety, and COVID-19.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for OSU Extension.

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Sanja Ilic